At midnight, the State of Texas was set to execute a man on death row named Conrad Dane Powers, who had come to be known as C.D. Powers while he was serving his sentence. In November of 1983, he had abducted a married couple in the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant in Denton, Texas, and forced them to have sex on camera before he stabbed them to death. He then dismembered the bodies and placed the pieces in a locked freezer he kept in the wood shop behind his house in Carrollton. When he and his family went on vacation to Disneyworld in May of 1984, a thunderstorm in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area caused city-wide blackouts, and the contents of C.D.’s freezer thawed out and grew warm. After the neighbors called the police to report the smell, the freezer was found with the married couple’s remains, and he was arrested in front of his wife and two children while they stood in line for a flume ride. It took eighteen months before he stood a trial that lasted six weeks, from which he received the death penalty. And for almost thirty years he had been appealing the sentence.
Marysa learned all this from the bartender, a wide-eyed brunette named Kai. She wore a grass skirt and a lei and a button pinned to her shirt that said Pray for the Stay below a symbol of two hands clasped in prayer and bound by handcuffs. She told Marysa that in the last few months of his life, C.D. Powers had been dictating his life story to a journalist who had been granted access to visit him on death row, and the journalist worked with an artist to turn Powers’s story into a weekly, handmade comic. Not the funny kind, she clarified.
“You can get a copy of it at some of the record stores or comic book shops around town,” she said. “I got this button at one of them, too, this record store in Dallas called Havoc Records. That is, if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on it.”
Marysa took a sip of her cranberry juice out of a glass that looked like a coconut shell, and looked around the hotel bar. It was made to appear like a tiki bar, complete with straw-covered eaves that hung from the ceiling, a machine that churned out tropical-colored frozen drinks, and fake tiki torches made of a fan that blew wax paper in front of an orange light. The bar was full of people who weren’t drinking, but rather who had come down to stand in front of both TVs turned to news channels. They watched reporters stand outside a penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas, in the final hour before the execution. One channel featured a countdown clock in the bottom-right corner. It was thirty-one minutes after eleven.
“Why is that?”
“People who’re for the death penalty have been buying up all the comics and burning them. The family of the victims are trying to get - what’s the word, an injunction? - against the journalist and the artist, to get them to stop making the comic. Saying it rewards Mr. Powers for what he’d done. Glorifies murder, all that. Whole thing’s got people going batshit crazy.” She tilted her head toward the crowd. “Either way, buncha people want Mr. Powers to die.”
“And I’m guessing from that button you’re wearing that you don’t.”
“What he did was,” she closed her eyes and searched for the right word, “monstrous. Heinous. Horrendous. You really can’t defend it. He’s even admitted to what he’s done himself.” She paused and opened a beer bottle for another customer and then leaned in and lowered her voice. “I’m just saying that I hope he gets a stay of execution. Live behind bars the rest of his life.” She poured gin and tonic into a Collins glass filled with ice and handed it to a waitress. “Other thing is this: this story he’s telling to the journalist is,” she looked to see if anyone was listening, “really compelling. I’ve never seen anything like it. Whole story. He’s leaving nothin out. Started from the beginning. And he’s almost at the point in his story where he talks about the crime, about what happened with that couple he killed. People who’ve been reading the comic, we’re like, We’d really like to read this, you know?”
“Sounds like Gary Gilmore.”
Everyone’s attention turned to a man who stood on a bar stool near one of the TVs. He wore a black suit with a necktie hanging loosely around his unbuttoned collar.
“May I have everybody’s attention please?”
The man raised a shot glass in the air and waited until all eyes were on him.
“I’d like to propose a toast.” Gin blossoms on his cheeks, sweat trickling down his forehead. He had short spiky hair and the necktie that hung untied around his neck was metallic orange. He pointed to the crowd when he spoke. “To the great State of Texas. For seeing fit to put another monster in the ground where he belongs.”
A number of people cheered him on and a vocal few booed and told him to sit down.
“And for seeing fit to send a message to anyone else out there: that if you choose to murder or rape someone in this state, you will be dealt with the old-fashioned way.” He waited until the cheers quieted down and he continued. “All Governor Perry has to do is nothin. All he has to do is sleep. So: keep sleeping, Governor Perry. Sweet dreams, and we’ll see you in the morning, when we all wake up to a world that’s a little better off because Conrad Powers has been put down like a dog.” Before a cheer could erupt, the man temped them down with his hand. “If Governor Perry does the right thing tonight, a round of shots on me, for the whole bar. So,” he raised his shot glass again, “to the great State of Texas: Cheers!”
When the noise died down, Kai waved a hand in dismissal at the man in the suit. She leaned forward and placed her elbows on the bar.
“Surely you got an opinion on all this. Don’t let me do all the talking.”
“I don’t vote in this state. This isn’t my party.”
“Where’re you from?”
Marysa looked down at her cranberry juice and then looked up at the bartender.
“They execute folks in New Mexico?”
“No idea. I don’t watch the news.”
“I should probably do the same.” She folded her arms and looked at one of the TVs. “This is an anxious mess. Feels like I got too much salt in my blood stream.” She poured a glass of white wine and set it on the counter for a waitress. “So what do you think of our fair state?”
“I had huevos rancheros for breakfast and turkey chili for lunch.”
“Texas is where you want to get chili,” she said while she looked down at her phone. “And if you ask me, we have the best barbecue, too. Memphis doesn’t—” Her eyes darted left and right in a beady race, her face lit white by the glow of her phone’s screen. “Someone outside the Governor’s Mansion is reporting that Perry’s awake and restless.” She looked up. “What do you think? What do you think ‘restless’ means?”
“Maybe the air conditioning’s not working.”
“Tell me the truth. You think we’re crazy, right?” She looked at the TV. “Most folks who come through here from out of town think we’ve lost our minds.”
“I like Texas,” Marysa folded her arms and leaned in, her bodying tightening, getting smaller, “but I’m just passing through. Every time I’m here, it’s only for a day, maybe two days. I feel like one of those people who say they’ve been to Chicago, but only the airport.”
“Chicago,” she said. “I could use a trip to Chicago right now. I saw that they got almost ten inches of snow today. Look outside here, you’d think it’s late August.”
“You like snow.”
“I love snow. I dream of snow. I like getting bundled up. It feels heroic. Nothing about this weather feels heroic.”
Someone in the bar called out Twenty minutes! followed by sporadic hoots and hollers. The TV still commanded everyone’s attention, but smaller clusters had sprung up, men and women in close confines, swaying inches away from one another as if at a school dance. They leaned into one another to whisper over iced drinks and longnecks. Waitresses swiveled in the free spaces, trays held high above their heads, and a man in a pastel polo talked on his phone while he watched Marysa. When they made eye contact, he winked at her.
“I think it’s time for me to call it a night.” She got up from her seat and gripped the brim of her white hat like a Derby lady. “I don’t think I have the energy for this anymore.”
“Don’t you want to see what happens?”
Marysa shook her head and stepped out of the way to let a young woman in denim cutoffs and a Rangers cap take her seat.
“Good luck with your prisoner. I hope he makes it through for you.”