Read Sleep Toward Heaven Online

Authors: Amanda Eyre Ward

Sleep Toward Heaven


A Novel by Amanda Eyre Ward

ebook ISBN: 978-1-59692-865-7

M P Publishing Limited

12 Strathallan Crescent
Isle of Man
United Kingdom
Telephone: +44 (0)1624 618672
email: [email protected]

Originally published by:

MacAdam/Cage Publishing
155 Sansome Street, Suite 550
San Francisco, CA 94104
Copyright © 2003 by Amanda Eyre Ward
All rights reserved.

“Sleeping Toward Heaven” ©1987 William Stafford from An Oregon Message (Harper & Row).
Reprinted by permission of The Estate of William Stafford

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Ward, Amanda Eyre, 1972—
           Sleep toward heaven / by Amand Eyre Ward
                    p. cm.
           ISBN 1-931561-23-0 (Hardcover : alk. paper)
           1. Executions and executioners—Fiction. 2. Murder victims’ families—Fiction. 3. Death row inmates—Fiction. 4. Women librarians—Fiction. 5. Women physicians—Fiction. 6. Women murderers—Fiction. 7. Widows—Fiction. 8. Texas—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3623.A725 S58 2003

Book and jacket design by Dorothy Carico Smith

For Tip, my love.

While they slept, faith flowered, an outside dream,
and surrounded them in their cave. All they had to do
was to sleep toward Heaven and open their eyes
like dolls. Up there on the ceiling was all they needed.

—William Stafford

part one

n Wednesday, they begin to get ready for the Satan Killer, who is due to arrive after lunch. They order a lamp and a radio from the commissary, and charge them to Tiffany’s account. Karen makes the bed in the empty cell with clean sheets. All the women on Death Row, who had been using the cell as a storage room, have removed their belongings to give the Satan Killer a fresh start.

Lifting the sheet in the air and snapping it tight over the mattress, Karen remembers the pure relief that flooded through her when she first saw her own cell: bare, clean, and smelling of ammonia. It was almost five years ago.

Tiffany takes two books from the bookshelf, Women Who Kill and The Jane Fonda Workout. She puts them by the Satan Killer’s bed. “There,” she says.

It is four-thirty in the morning. Breakfast is over, and there is the long, pre-lunch stretch ahead of them. Tiffany stands outside the vacant cell, one thin arm around her stomach and the other against her chin. “Should I, like, draw her a picture or something? It looks so sad.”

“Leave it alone,” says Karen.

“But it looks pathetic,” says Tiffany. She shakes her Farrah Fawcett hairdo, and it settles back into place. Underneath her white jumpsuit, her limbs are strong. Tiffany runs in place and does sit-ups and push-ups inside her cell. She takes recess daily, has made a dusty path the shape of the number eight in the small, fenced yard. She believes that she will be set free, and the belief makes her restless. Karen recognizes the sharp hope, like a piece of gravel in a shoe. The knowledge of time, and of missing out. When you let go of the hope, there is a dull, numb peace in its wake.

“Leave it alone,” says Karen.

They live in a row, in Mountain View Unit. They share the television and the table bolted to the rectangle of cement in front of their cells. During the day, they are locked into the cage, where they work. Unlike the rest of the prisoners, they are not taught skills for the future. Instead, they make dolls called Parole Pals, which prison employees can special-order, choosing hair color, skin color, an outfit. All afternoon in the cage, the women paint faces on the Parole Pals, and make tiny clothes and shoes. Sometimes, Karen wakes in the night and sees the naked, faceless dolls that hang above the sewing machines. She has to remind herself that they are not babies, and not alive.

Veronica agrees with Tiffany. She says, in her low, hoarse voice, “That cell certainly does need something. Something decorative.” Veronica has been on Death Row the longest, and has a manner that commands respect, something about the way she holds her shoulders back and peppers her statements with words like “certainly,” “absolutely,” and “indeed.” She is sixty-three years old, and wears her white hair in a bun. Her skin is loose, and she is fleshy, wide at the hips.

She rises from her cot and wraps one of her veined hands around a metal bar. Although they are no longer allowed cigarettes, Veronica has retained a smoker’s way of speaking, pausing between statements, a pause that should be punctuated by a deep inhale and elegant exhale of smoke. They wait, and Veronica decrees, “Art.”

“Excuse me?” says Karen.

“Art,” says Veronica. “Everyone find something or make something. Some sort of art.”

“Let her do it herself,” says Karen. She points to Veronica’s cell. “You don’t want someone else’s crap on your wall, you know?”

Veronica turns to look at her cell, which is filled with yellowing photographs. She has wedding pictures of herself with all her husbands: Allen, Grady, Bill, Patrick, Stephen, another Bill, Chuck. In the earliest pictures, she is small-boned, engulfed in dresses like cakes, layered and creamy. Over the years, her body grows solid and her wedding dresses become darker and more spare. Patrick is the last husband for whom she wore a veil. Veronica’s face goes slack looking at the photographs. She is lost in one of her wedding days, spinning on a dance floor while the band plays “Starlight Melody” and her new husband presses his warm lips to her forehead.

Tiffany jumps in. “I wish you had put something in my cell. It was so horrible, being dragged here and dumped like a bag of garbage!” Her voice goes shrill, indignant. Tiffany insists that she is innocent, that somebody else drowned her daughters, Joanna and Josie. Somebody else took them to the pond behind Tiffany’s house and put rocks in the girls’ matching sleeping suits. Somebody threw them in, held them under until they drowned, and watched them sink. Their open mouths, throats filled with water. Eyes open to stinging darkness. In Tiffany’s cell, she has twenty-six shades of nail polish, lined up in a gleaming row.

Karen tries not to roll her eyes. Jackie looks up from her sewing. “What about one of my quilts?” she says. “It would add some color, anyway.” She brushes her hair from her freckled forehead with a quick motion, and something in her jaw snaps. Jackie is filled with mean energy. She moves fast, talks fast, has bony elbows and knees. To keep her hands moving, she sews: quilts, pillows, the dress she will be executed in. The dress is red, with sequins she orders from a catalog.

They will only let her have one dull needle, so her sewing goes pretty slowly. Although “Mountain View Quilts” seemed like a good idea for a business, Jackie has only sold one through the Web site her sister maintains. Jackie used to be a hairdresser, and likes to do everyone’s hair. Obviously, she can’t cut anything, but she brushes it around and sprays hairspray. Also, she does Tiffany’s nails. She is due to be executed in a month.

“I think the Satan Killer would love a quilt,” says Tiffany, looking at Veronica.

“She can have this green one,” says Jackie. “It’s all fucked up.” She gestures to a quilt that is uneven and badly stitched.

Karen reaches both arms behind her and pulls her thin ponytail taut. “Fine,” she says. “Go ahead and make some art.”

Veronica is still staring at her photographs. She does this: fades from the situation at hand. They all assume Veronica won’t make anything for the empty cell. Besides disguising the taste of arsenic in home-cooked dinners, she isn’t really talented in domestic arts.

They have already seen the Satan Killer on TV. She is black, like Karen. Her name is Sharleen Jones. She is nineteen years old.

Karen, who since childhood has been unable to ignore the dark edges around every situation, had a terrible dream about the Satan Killer. It was after her shower, the tooth powder still gritty in her mouth. Karen lay down on her cot, and the dream came to her unbidden: the thick forest where the children crouched, frightened, around a campfire. The air was hot and wet, and smelled like things growing.

In the dream, Sharleen looked kind. She wore jeans and a sweatshirt with a teddy bear on it. Sharleen’s hair was parted in the middle and stuck behind her ears. She was dark-skinned, with brown eyes. Her shoulders were wide, like a man’s. At her throat, a necklace rested, her name spelled in gold.

Karen saw it all in the dream: Sharleen, her boyfriend, and the four small children walking down the trail and then into the undergrowth. Pine needles against their cheeks, the lifeless limbs of a dead tree. It was hard to make a fire. Sharleen took the clothes off the children, peeled them off, like fruit. Folded them (small pants, shirts, socks, boots, hats) and put them in a paper bag. The pattern of leaves against the darkening sky, flickers of light from the smoldering fire. Sharleen’s voice, high, chanting, a glinting knife, and the blood. Karen woke from the dream to the screaming from the mental ward down the hall.

One day the guards forgot to change the channel, and the women on Death Row watched Sharleen’s trial with rapt attention. Karen already knew, but found that she had been right: each child had been sliced across the throat, their hearts cut from their bodies.

Jackie unfurls the ugly quilt and smoothes it over the Satan Killer’s bed. Veronica has decided to pencil something onto paper in a fancy script. So far, she has written “S” and “E.” Sex? wonders Karen, Seagull? Secret?

Tiffany fancies herself a painter, and has settled at the picnic table with her watercolor set. She appears to be painting a bird of sorts, with long talons. When she dips her brush in the bowl of water, color streams from it like smoke.

“You’re not going to do anything?” Jackie is standing in front of Karen’s cell, her eyes narrowed scornfully. Karen rolls over on her cot to face the wall. “Bitch,” says Jackie.

The Satan Killer arrives at two. Tiffany and Veronica are at showers, and Jackie is sewing her sequins. Between the guards’ strong arms, Sharleen looks like a giant rag doll. She lets her head loll forward, exposing the bare skin where her hair parts, and is dragged to her cell, putting up no resistance. The guards are Keith and Edward, both new.

Guards do not stay for long on Death Row. When they find themselves smiling at a joke from Tiffany, or giving Karen extra cups of tea, the guards seem to know that it is time. Something happens to them. Their skin grows soft; the sadness seeps inside them. They are replaced. The guards that remain are solid as steel.

Sharleen sinks down onto her cot, and Karen thinks she can hear crying. Jackie is always mean, as mean as a snake. She puts down her sewing, runs her hands through her red mane, and saunters over. Karen closes her eyes.

“You the Satan Killer?” Jackie asks. She gets no answer from Sharleen. “I made you that quilt,” says Jackie. Again, there is no reply. “I made you that fucking quilt!” says Jackie. She has to shout to be heard above the television. Jackie walks to the middle of the room and stretches. Her white prison clothes are loose. She begins to practice high kicks. “I could have been a dancer,” she says. “Everybody said so.” She kicks and kicks until she is out of breath, and then she goes back to Sharleen.

Don’t blame Jackie. She is so tired of sequins. She has sewn three hundred and seventeen sequins. She has been on Death Row for ten years, has made twelve quilts, and is going to die. There has been no stay of execution, and the news says there will not be one. The TV shows a picture of Jackie with her hair like fire and then they show the governor with his tight mouth and smiling eyes. The governor says, “Tough on crime” and “Eye for an eye.” No, there will be no stay for Jackie. They have not executed a woman in Texas since 1863, when they hung a woman named Chipita Rodriguez for murdering a horse trader.

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