On June 6, 1988, Jennifer Wilson hopped on her bicycle and pedaled down a Forest Service road, just a little over a mile away from her family’s vacation ranch near Flagstaff, Arizona. It was a sunny day, and she was nine years old. Jennifer and her family had arrived in town the night before, too late to stable their horses, so their vacation began now. Jennifer’s mother tailed her daughter’s bicycle for a bit in the car, towing the horses behind her, then sped up and passed. A few minutes later she pulled into her driveway and tended to the horses while she waited for her daughter. Several minutes went by. Then ten. Her mother kept looking up the hill for her daughter. Casual glances turned to concern. Finally, she got into the car and backtracked along the forest service road. She passed a blue SUV she’d never forget. Half a mile later, she found the bike lying in the dirt, off to the side, abandoned.
A police search ensued. Roadblocks were established, and helicopter support was summoned. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was alerted. Search parties of law enforcement and concerned citizens dispersed into the surrounding woods, harboring good intentions and a futile hope.
Nearly three weeks later, hikers found Jennifer’s remains beneath stacks of branches and shrubbery on Sheep Hill, just a couple of miles away from her abandoned bike. Her remains told her story: hands bound behind her back with her own shoelace; head and genitalia decomposed; jaw shattered and skull fractured from blows delivered with a tire iron; panties hanging in a tree above her corpse; clusters of her golden-brown hair scattered around the crime scene. Among the locks was pubic hair—not Jennifer’s.
The day Jennifer went missing, a man reported to the police suspicions that his brother, Richard Bible, had been stealing from him. Bible had served six years in prison for raping his underage cousin at knifepoint, and he was last seen driving a stolen SUV similar to the vehicle Jennifer’s mother described to the police. When the police spotted Bible driving the SUV, a high-speed car chase followed. Bible abandoned the SUV and rushed into the woods on foot. With the help of canines, the police apprehended Bible, who had buried himself under shrubs and leaves, armed with a knife. The pubic hairs found at Jennifer’s crime scene matched Bible’s. The blood on Bible’s shirt matched Jennifer’s. Two years later, Bible was sentenced to death. He was sent to the state penitentiary in Florence, Arizona, where for the next twenty years, through appeal after denied appeal, he awaited execution.
When I met him, he was running out of appeals and time.
• • •
December 2010: I scurry through the darkness of my college rental house enduring the cold chill of poor insulation and a vintage heating system. On a towel rack I locate my dress shirt, sprayed down with water last night to smooth the wrinkles. I second-guess my decision to pass black Vans off as dress shoes, remembering my father’s words, “Don’t look too sloppy,” but it’s too early to buy leather substitutes—Target isn’t open yet. As a legal assistant and son, I’ve met my father’s clients before—innocent bankers and entrepreneurs as well as an alleged murderer and a convicted rapist—but this feels different. Richard Bible’s murder case is arguably the most notorious Arizona has seen in decades. I look in the mirror: I’m twenty-two years old, but I could pass for seventeen.
It’s still dark as I drive past the University of Arizona campus, which at 6:00 a.m. looks abandoned. I reach Florence just as the sunrise radiates new color over the desolate town’s rooftops. The small town between Phoenix and Tucson is known almost exclusively for its collection of prisons—federal, state, private, you name it. Aside from the weather, there is nothing particularly warm about this place. The buildings range from institutional tan to brown, a perfectly adequate landscape to film a western. Last night, when my dad told me to meet him at the Burger King, I responded, “Which one?” His laugh hinted at the town’s size.
While I wait, I read Beowulf to prepare for a final back in Tucson, but I retain nothing. When my dad arrives, his smile fills his goatee—it’s been a few months since we’ve seen each other.
“You excited?” he asks.
On the far outskirts of the prison, a red-and-white sign cautions, no trespassing. I follow my father’s car through the tunnel of progressively more dangerous housing units. Spirals of barbed wire spin violently atop the chain-link fencing that surrounds us. Men play pickup basketball in the yard—orange vs. orange. The inmates are imprisoned by walls, the walls by desert, the desert by mountains. At the checkpoint, a guard rocks his sturdy frame back and then forward, gaining momentum to dismount his stool. He examines my license and asks, “This is you, huh?”
“Haircut,” I respond. I follow my father’s turn signals until we reach the Browning Unit and park.
Inside, I am no longer my father’s son but an underqualified paralegal. We fill out paperwork and pass through the metal detector. The metal detector is silent, but my father can’t help but laugh as I reloop my brown belt above my clashing black shoes.
A chatty prison guard, too young to project authority, escorts us through four blue metal doors with automated locks. My father is professional in his jacket and tie, a pair of leather shoes and a belt that makes sense, and exudes an aura of confidence, summoning all of his six feet and four inches through stalwart posture. It crosses my mind to imitate him, but I slouch behind him. He’s only an inch taller than I, but it might as well be a full foot. His head is freshly shaved and his goatee is trimmed. My hair is uncombed, and I sport a blond mustache you can see only if the lighting is just right.
We find Richard Bible in a holding cell, his eyes shifting, his arms raised. “What’s going on, Dan? They’ve got me waiting here for over half an hour.”
“They probably figured you weren’t going anywhere,” my father responds. Bible releases a crooked smile and nods.
A pair of corrections officers cuff Bible and escort him from the holding cell to a stark white block interview room, about the size of a cubicle. Once inside, he squats awkwardly so the officer can remove his cuffs through a small opening. He scrambles to his seat, rotating his head back and forth between my dad and me, like a bird being stalked by multiple predators. His movements are twitchy; he can’t sit still. His dark darting eyes rest deep in his soft face.
Last year, my father had me rebox and index Bible’s file to send to a new lawyer to handle the remaining appeal, suggesting that Bible claim inadequate representation by my father—a common tactic at this stage in a capital case. I examined the contents of the case file and its photos of blood-covered hair; mug shots of a man in peak physical condition with intricate tattoos and a thousand-mile stare; innumerable news clippings with thousands of pages describing what he did, how he was tried, why he was convicted, and the specifics of his appeal.
The legal strategy didn’t work; my father’s representation was ruled competent, so here we are. Bible is no longer confined to a cardboard box. We are separated only by bulletproof glass—that, and circumstances and choices.
Bible’s muscles have turned to soft pasty flesh, like those of a caged pit bull deprived of exercise. Face inches away from the glass, he rocks back and forth, staring at my dad. “So we’re screwed, right?”
My dad laughs, never breaking eye contact. “I’m not screwed, Richard.”
Bible snorts and shows his teeth. Their tone is friendly, but they’re almost yelling to be heard through the thick glass dividing them. What happened to the phone system from Law & Order?
“It’s just—I’m stuck in my house not knowing if I’ll make it through the year.” I wonder what he means by “house,” but it takes only a moment to understand: of course, anyone would label his final abode a home, not a cage.
“Oh, you’ll make it through the year. I don’t know if Santa will come see you, but I promise you’ll be here for Christmas.”
“My mom thinks I’m dead sooner.”
“Ricky, I’m not your mother. You’ll make it through the year.”
“I don’t want my mom testifying in that clemency hearing.”
“I can’t make your mother testify,” my father replies, seemingly calm. He’s been working with death row inmates for twenty-three years, and with Bible for seven. But it never gets easier—forcing aside his queasiness at their alleged crimes, accidentally and perhaps unavoidably befriending them over years, watching them go. “But I’m going through with the clemency hearing,” my father says. “I’m doing it for me. I have to know that I’ve exhausted every possible option before you go.”
Bible leans to my father’s side of the glass, blocking my view with his shoulder, and lowers his voice, attempting to exclude me. “Why is he here?”
It’s a fair question, and I don’t really know the answer, either. I’ve been working for my dad on and off since I was thirteen. What started as moving boxes and reorganizing the library evolved to doing legal research, typing dictations, and undertaking the occasional fieldwork. I’m a paid employee, but I also asked if I could be here, because I’m fascinated by my father’s work with death row inmates, and I’ve heard about it only secondhand. I’m here to see for myself.
“He’s taking notes for me,” my dad says.
Bible nods and taps his fingers frantically, then acknowledges me for the first time. “You want to be a lawyer too?”
“No,” I say.
My father quickly cuts in. “His generation wants to separate themselves from their parents.”
Bible nods too quickly, again. And now he and I are done.
The next twenty minutes is small talk, which isn’t uncommon in these meetings. But I’m not sure if this is my dad’s version of bedside manner or if there’s just not much left to say about a crime that happened in 1988. These appeals will question whether Bible was given a fair trial and the death penalty’s place in our justice system; the actual evidence leaves little to work with. I learn Bible has a forty-dollar-a-week (eighty for holidays) allowance from his parents and that they communicate only by phone because “it’s easier, less bickering.” They talk about his brother’s struggles with alcohol and depression, and Bible’s voice cracks as he says, “Guy blames it all on me.” Bible details his day-to-day: “I buy candy from the store. Besides that, I drink water from the sink and waste my time drawing and watching television.”
And then the conversation refocuses on the appeal. “Are there any COs who would testify you’ve demonstrated good behavior?”
Bible loses his breath laughing. He explains he has received only one citation for misconduct since he’s been in prison. (I’ll later learn this is not strictly accurate.)
“Threatening an officer.”
“No.” Bible explains that a female CO spilled hot coffee down his arms and he shot her a look. I wonder to myself if any woman on this planet has ever accidentally poured hot coffee on a man convicted of sexually assaulting and brutally murdering a nine-year-old girl.
• • •
By the time he took me to meet Richard Bible, my father was years into the project of saving me from myself. The misconduct started off small, but grew as I did.
One day in seventh grade, I convinced a friend that it would be more fun to go to Jack in the Box than science class. When the lunch monitor turned the corner to use the restroom, we crept behind the fifth-grade building and pulled ourselves over a cinder-block wall into an apartment parking lot. The ground was further than I had anticipated; I landed on all fours and, from an Olympic sprinting position, took off running as if a gun had fired.
We jogged down Maryland Street wearing backpacks and incriminating smiles. It felt odd being so exposed during the middle of a school day, unconfined by tall blue gates and authority. It felt foreign and frivolous. We barely noticed the double takes of passing drivers.
A half mile later, we were sitting at Jack in the Box, eating tacos smothered in hot sauce and giggling over how easily our crime had come to fruition. Not even five minutes into the forbidden meal, we were plotting to ditch again. We grinned red, Hi-C stuck to our plaque-covered teeth. We were high on sugar and risk. And then Mr. Miller, the school security guard, entered the restaurant. Busted.
The principal made me call my parents. When my mother did not answer, I left a message, explaining in a cracking voice that I had ditched school because I was hungry.
“Now call your father,” Ms. Mahon said.
“He’s at work. I don’t want to bother him.”
She picked up the phone and placed it in my hand, staring at me with raised eyebrows and a cocked head—a look I found incredibly irritating. I was already on thin ice with Ms. Mahon; earlier in the year, I had gotten into a fight with a classmate and probably would have been suspended had it not been for the boy’s father—a teacher—pulling me aside and making threats I repeated to Ms. Mahon. So I dialed—the wrong number. She watched as I performed a phony voicemail into the busy signal, I assume rather unconvincingly, but she didn’t say anything to dispute it. She suspended me for the rest of the week.
At the end of the day, I pedaled my bike home, hoping my mother was still at work. She was, but my father’s car was parked in front of our house. He was never home at this hour. Ever. I parked my bike and walked in cautiously.
He turned away from a news program and looked at me. Everything seemed normal. “Hey, bud. You want to grab something to eat?”
“I’m not really hungry.”
“Thought we could grab a bite before your baseball game.”
“It’s all right. I’ll just meet you there.”
He always took me to my baseball games, but he didn’t flinch at my request to go solo. After all, we lived only a few blocks from school.
When we arrived home after the game, I shed my cleats, finished a Bullet Popsicle, plopped down onto the couch, and turned on the TV. My father walked in front of the television and turned it off.
“So, why didn’t you want to eat lunch with me today?” he asked. He paused. “Too full from Jack in the Box?” As my world stopped turning, he continued: “Did you really think I wouldn’t find out?”
I didn’t say a word. I shook, instead, terrified to make eye contact. My visible anxiety intensified against his procedural calm poise.
“So you’re suspended tomorrow, huh?”
“Yes,” I said. “I have to go to the detention center. It’s at a different school.”
“Couple miles away.”
My mother chimed in. “I’ll drive him.”
“Bullshit,” he said, his eyes welded to me. “He walked his ass to Jack in the Box. He can walk his ass to detention.”
• • •
Now that the Arizona Supreme Court has denied my father’s appeals, the clemency hearing is all that’s left. The odds of saving Bible, practically speaking, are nil. Since the United States Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, no death row inmate in Arizona has been granted clemency.
My father has argued in front of the clemency board before. He has lost. He is 0–1, with aspirations—but little hope—of a .500 record. In any case, it’s not really the board’s decision. My father fights merely for their recommendation; ultimately, the governor decides whether a life is worth sparing. No Arizona governor has ever said yes.
It’s June 27, 2011. I graduated from college last month, and I’m back in Phoenix for a bit before I move to California. I didn’t plan to come back here at all, but after chains of email correspondence and phone calls with my dad, I’m too sucked into this case to leave before it’s through.
At the clemency hearing, I sit in the waiting room just outside the hearing office among a thirty-or-so-person crowd in front of a small, outdated television set broadcasting a live feed from the camera inside. I locate my father on the screen, then the board members, the prosecutor, the Wilson family and their supporters. This is how I classify them, “supporters,” and wonder what this makes me. I feel outnumbered. I picture the looks I might get if the crowd knew I was not really on their side.
I believe Bible deserves to die. I’m certain he killed a child; I’ve seen all the files. His was the first DNA case in Arizona, and the results were conclusive. I’m watching my father get ready to defend a man who took a life, who crushed a family just three days after I, his youngest son, was born.
And yet, I don’t want Bible to die, though I’m not totally sure why. I’ve been against the death penalty since I first heard of it, but like most of my longest-held philosophies, this one was inherited from my parents, and I’m getting too old to rest on those laurels. Maybe it’s that if Bible dies, my father loses, and that’s not something I’m ready to accept, but I hope this line of inquiry stems from a place more nuanced than simply an urge to root for the home team. Maybe it’s because I’ve met Bible. He is a human being after all. But is humanity enough?
I can quote statistics about guilty verdicts being overturned, botched executions, and how it costs taxpayers a fortune to execute an inmate, but I’m beginning to understand that my opposition to killing a man who deserves to die has nothing to do with fiscal responsibility or the other talking points I’ve embraced because they happen to support my stance. Instead, it lives somewhere in the recognition that we are too flawed to exercise any judgment with such permanence. But in this crowded room of people who have more at stake than their evolving values, I can’t form a single coherent thought.
My dad speaks first. He is here to plead for Bible’s life, to reexamine the possible missteps of the original trial, to discount death as punishment, to finagle, to beg. Even so, I’m surprised that my father’s opening remarks are fueled by emotion rather than hard facts. He speaks of family and loss. Before pointing out the poor company America keeps—by embracing capital punishment, we are in bed with the likes of Communist China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia—he acknowledges that there is no conceivable pain comparable to that of losing a child. His voice becomes hoarse as he fights to maintain composure. I feel strange to be included, peripherally part of the content, and I am glad no one in the room recognizes me. I wonder if they discern his authenticity or mistake it for pandering.
It takes the board only a few minutes to deliberate before declining to recommend clemency to the governor. Bible is another step closer to death. Through the vintage television, I watch as my father shakes hands with the board members, with the prosecutor, with Jennifer Wilson’s father. “I’m not mad at you,” Mr. Wilson tells my father. “I understand this is your job.” My father nods and walks away. This gesture will stick with me forever. Even now, years later, I’ll wonder how a man seeking justice for his fractured family could muster such calm and kind words in such a turbulent situation. As my father makes his way through the room, I think about the nights we’ve spent watching To Kill a Mockingbird, and I recall his favorite scene. It’s when Scout watches from her balcony seat as her father exits the courtroom. “Miss Jean Louise. Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing,” a man says to her. Scout sat because she was too young to comprehend the gravity of the moment. She sat because to her Atticus was simply her father, a man of ordinary stature. Only later would she recognize the courage it takes to defend the indefensible, to stand in a room and fight for a life that others believe is not worth saving.
Richard Bible is no Tom Robinson, but I’m old enough to understand the weight and sacrifice of my father’s job. As he passes into the waiting room, defeated, I stand.
• • •
At age seventeen, I was passed out in the back of a white nine-seater van when it veered from Route 51 and launched off a cement guardrail. I regained partial consciousness as we rolled and skidded across the freeway, as the seats crumpled and my body, unbuckled, bounced from seat to ceiling, my head absorbing the majority of the impact. I heard my friends’ voices but could not distinguish one from the other as their yells melted into a single scream. Disoriented, I lifted my head, trying to figure out where I was.
There were five of us in the van: my buddy Trevor, our friend and his girlfriend, the driver, and I. When the van finally came to rest on its side, the doors were crumpled shut, so Trevor kicked in and shattered a side window and climbed out, followed by the couple. Alone in the back, separated by the dislocated rows of bench seats and random debris, I removed my flannel, wrapped it around my hand, and swung a closed fist across my body at the back window. Nothing. I swung again, harder. It busted.
The couple consoled one another outside the van. The driver was sobbing, trapped by his seat belt, but it hadn’t yet registered that he couldn’t get out. He screamed drunken apologies, screamed for forgiveness. I found Trevor.
“Should we bolt?” I asked, as we stumbled around kicking empty beer cans out of the road and into bushes. He nodded. But then the tone of the driver’s screams changed, became more frantic. His screams paralyzed us into staying, and the accident nearly paralyzed him permanently; we eventually found out that his knee was shattered, his neck broken.
I don’t remember whether other drivers pulled over or how long it took for the cops to arrive. I don’t remember what the Breathalyzer read when the officer made me blow into the stubby plastic straw—a procedure that was no longer new to me. But I remember when my parents showed up—a procedure that was no longer new to them. My siblings had gotten into their fair share of collective trouble, but nothing like this. A year earlier, my parents had picked me up after I was sideswiped outside of a friend’s house. This time, as she had before, my mother embraced me and said it would be OK. This time, unlike before, my father didn’t. He walked straight past me to the cops. He declined their offer to take me to the hospital, to run some tests and make sure I was OK. He signed paperwork and received my underage-drinking citation. If he was at all affected, he did a damn good job of hiding it. He stood steady and tall. He looked like a lawyer.
The silence in the car ride home was unsettling, but I didn’t want it to break. My mother looked back every now and then with deep sad eyes like she could fix me with her love and disappointment. I don’t believe my father ever checked his rearview.
My mother and I filed out of the car and walked across the driveway. My father stayed outside—not long, but long enough for his behavior to be unusual. Inside the house, I tried to walk up the stairs to my room, but his deep voice arrested my stride.
“Get your ass down here.” His anger, visceral, surfaced. He trembled like he needed to break something. I knew he’d never lay a finger on me—I was the only kid in my family to never get spanked—but I was frightened nonetheless. Veins protruded from his bald, reddening head, ready to crawl out and slither away, possibly explode. I stood at the bottom of the staircase, shit-faced, shaking.
A pause that can be described only as terribly fatherly.
“You think this shit’s OK?”
He bit down tightly on his lip. “Do you know how fucking selfish you are?”
The answer was no. I wasn’t thinking about him at all when I shoulder-tapped homeless guys and college kids to get liquor on the weekends. That previous summer, when I had been detained by a police officer in San Diego, sure, it was my dad who had to clean up my mess and settle my case, replacing a conviction with alcohol classes and community service, but as I was pursued down that Mission Beach alleyway with a paper-bagged tall can in hand, he didn’t exist. He had no part in this, in any of it. He was simply happenstance, collateral damage.
I said none of this. I nodded anyway.
“Then why the hell do you do this?”
I stayed silent. My vision blurred, shaky. Part of me wanted to snap into soberness, but most of me was grateful for the thick, drunken fog. This simple question felt confusingly dense.
“I don’t know.”
“You’re flirting with death, son. It’s not games anymore; you’re doing things that could kill you. And it’s killing me to watch. This running-around-with-your-friends bullshit ends now. Understood?”
“No, I don’t think you do.”
“No, it’s not fucking OK.” He did this only when I was in bad trouble—purposely misinterpreted my words, too angry to share even a sliver of common ground. But no matter how badly I fucked up, he had always ended his lectures by saying he still loved me. This time he didn’t. I wondered if this time he couldn’t.
I retreated upstairs to my room, surrounded by the empty bedrooms that had once housed my older brother and sisters. But they were all gone and graduated from college. One married with children, one working in Alaska, one teaching English in Thailand. Now it was just me, lurking.
I poured water from my bathroom sink into my cupped palms and submerged my face, trying to drown what was left of the night.
Still fully clothed, I crawled into bed. I used my left hand to lower myself onto the sheets, my right too tender and swollen from breaking the window. The lump on the back of my head felt soft, like a cloth bag filled with oatmeal. I tried resting it against my pillow but even that made me want to scream. So I sat up in bed, my back against the wall, my head tilted down, and spent the night falling in and out of consciousness, never truly at rest, thinking: If I can just fall asleep, he’ll be at work when I wake.
• • •
On June 29, 2011, the day before Bible’s scheduled and seemingly inevitable execution, my father and I drive to Florence together. Navigating the now-familiar terrain, we roll between lonely power lines and trailers and check into the Holiday Inn. Gazing out the window, I find no evidence that Florence is aware of death creeping slowly through its soil. Richard Bible will be only the twenty-seventh person executed in Arizona since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, but the third in the last three months.
I am not allowed to be present during my father’s visit with Bible today or during the execution tomorrow. I assume it’s protocol for a condemned man to enjoy his last, most intimate breaths and dialogues with those he is closest with—the few, the trusted.
My father leaves for the prison to meet with Bible. I stay in the room and read a collection of short stories entitled This Is Not Your City.
When he returns, we go out to eat at one of the two sit-down restaurants in town, and over our ravioli dinner, my father describes Bible’s soon-to-be-last meal. In Arizona, last meals come with rules: they must be consumable within an hour (no thirty-pound steaks); absolutely no alcohol is allowed; and of course there are unenumerated but obvious restrictions (no human flesh, no bald eagle). I wonder if a man twenty-three years exempt from liquor can get drunk on a single beer. I question why we don’t let him.
My father tells me Bible has ordered five poached eggs covered in melted cheese; seven biscuits, a number he chose for its luckiness; a pitcher of sausage gravy to pour over his first five biscuits; a bowl of peanut butter and a bowl of jelly for the remaining two, as dessert; and a tall glass of chocolate milk to wash it all down.
“Eggs and biscuits?” I ask, amused. “Can’t he choose anything?”
My dad says the other inmates had encouraged Bible to order shark steak or lobster tails, foods that he’d likely never had. Instead, he opted for a combination of his favorite meals from the outside—meals shared with his father on road trips at Denny’s. Bible chose to eat his memories.
Back at the hotel, I remind my dad to call Bible’s mother. Bible said his good-byes yesterday and would rather my dad explain the rest: that after a declined US Supreme Court appeal, all options have been exhausted. As he dials the phone, my dad’s tone and mannerisms shift, become more lawyerly. His words are ruled by caution, spaced appropriately, delivered between tearful motherly gasps. He paces while he talks, and I lie in bed, watching. He hangs up the phone, sits on his bed, and shakes his head. “Sometimes I wonder if this is what my parents had in mind when they wanted me to be a lawyer.”
My father grew up an only child in Niagara Falls, New York. His dad was a sturdy man from Alabama who worked in factories and fixed cars, and his mother stayed home to raise him. Despite my grandmother’s adoration for her husband, she was adamant that her only son should avoid a blue-collar life. I believe she pictured my father in a suit, but I feel confident that men like Richard Bible were never a part of the plan.
In the handful of death penalty cases he’s handled, my dad has never asked a client the obvious question: Are you innocent or guilty? He doesn’t care. Well, maybe he cares, but it doesn’t affect his work. He tells me that during their visit today, Bible asked, “Why have you never asked if I was guilty?” My dad countered, “You’ve never asked whether or not I think you’re innocent.” When Bible pressed the issue, my dad offered that, to him, the most telling evidence was Jennifer’s blood, found on Bible’s shirt. The longest silence of a ninety-minute conversation ensued . . . and then they moved on.
• • •
It took me three semesters in high school to raise my GPA enough to gain acceptance into an out-of-state college in Chicago—the city where my siblings were born, my parents graduated law school, and my father made partner at a large firm. It was a city he loved and admired, that he mythicized. In my first week there, I decided I hated it. As the fall progressed, I resented the peacoats and leather shoes. I grew tired of my classmates looking at my long hair and Vans and saying things like, “Do you skate?” My roommate, the closest thing I had to a friend, shopped online for jackets lined in rabbit fur. These were not people that I’d befriend back in Arizona, and I didn’t even try. I can see now that I was unhappy for reasons I couldn’t explain or justify; neither the city nor the student body could possibly be responsible for my complacent discontent, but I had accumulated enough petty excuses to convince myself otherwise.
I returned to Phoenix for Christmas break with a one-way ticket, on disciplinary probation.
A week after Christmas, my father called me into his home office. I expected a lecture: he’d say his piece, explain why leaving Chicago was a mistake and complain that I hadn’t given it a chance. He’d confront me about the messy room I had left behind in the fall, with beer cans and bottles of liquor scattered about like Easter eggs among the clutter of dirty clothes and frozen-pizza wrappers. Now that I was home, it was the same mess already.
“Why don’t you like spending time with me?” he asked, standing tall in his office as I hunched in a chair.
Fuck. I suddenly wanted to be accused of a drinking problem.
He asked why he had to pull teeth to take his son to dinner. He simplified the dynamics of high school friendships, how they lack the sustainability and unconditional quality of family. He hadn’t talked to his high school friends in over thirty years. He said this like it mattered. Like I was malleable enough to be influenced by anecdotes. In the past few years I’d grown used to being a fuckup. I spent my days getting drunk at parentless households, using my brother’s ID at bars, and smoking weed on the bleachers of my old middle school because it was easy. I preferred my friends to family because they expected nothing more from me than a good time—something I felt qualified to provide. But this felt different. This was the first time that I realized I wasn’t the only victim of my narrative of poor choices—he was, too, which reinforced my belief that a bad hangover beats the hell out of a disappointed father.
My dad’s voice pulled me out of my own head. “It seems like you only come to me when you get in trouble,” he continued. He looked broken, ready to crumble. It was as if my avalanche of recent fuckups were pushing down on his large frame so heavily that the floor threatened to crack beneath him.
My favorite picture of my father and me was perched on a shelf in his office. The two of us, mowing the lawn—him tall, shirtless, barely forty; me three or four, towheaded and potbellied, also shirtless. The boy grips the plastic handle of a toy lawn mower, pretending to cut grass, pretending to be his father. He looks up at his father’s height and posture, studying, attempting to mimic his form. He is trying to pinpoint what makes them different—the father a man, the boy a boy—and how he might one day fill that larger mold. The boy possesses an admiration that might be fading away in this room as we speak. Was this what was so clearly missing in our relationship? Had I abandoned looking up to the man in front of me too soon?
I lied to him. I promised to take school more seriously and lay off the partying. I promised I’d spend more time at home, study, all that stuff. But my father didn’t budge, as if he were watching a slideshow of my future. As if he knew that within a year I would be kicked out of the University of Arizona and move to Alaska. That within two years, I would be back home and he would be driving me to and from the local community college because my license had been suspended for underage drinking and fake ID charges. He stood there looking at nothing in particular, because he knew I wasn’t done taking court-appointed alcohol-awareness and safety classes. He was not done tying my tie in a parking lot before we entered a courthouse as lawyer and client.
• • •
By eight thirty on the morning of the execution, my dad has already eaten breakfast, gone for a run, showered, dressed, and gone to the prison to see Bible one final time, to say good-bye to a man he has represented for seven years. I am still asleep when he gets back to the hotel.
“Hop in the shower, bud,” he says. I comply immediately. It wasn’t always this easy. When my mother couldn’t handle a teenage son who refused to wake, she’d defer to my father, who used tactics like “the Buzzard”—a hand-constructed bird used to terrorize tired children—and toe-pulling to kick-start the morning.
The execution is scheduled for 11:00 a.m. On the drive to the prison, my dad says that Bible enjoyed his last meal and seemed calm. At eleven o’clock the night before, armed guards entered Bible’s holding cell, strip-searched him, and escorted him outside to a van where he was taken by six guards from the Browning Unit to the nearby execution quarters. As we arrive at the prison’s entrance, several police cars are blockading the street. The sun is out, but everything feels insulated, a mask for the seeping darkness.
My dad grabs his briefcase and gets out of the car.
“Good luck,” I say. I immediately wish I’d said something different. Now it’s just me in the running car. It is still fairly early, but a week past the summer solstice, the sun beats down an angry heat through the windshield. A spotlight. The digital clock on the dashboard possesses a new relevance. It moves too slowly. Too quickly.
Press members lean against the bumpers of their news vans. A few guards roam the premises. It feels like the car is shrinking, so I cut the ignition and get out and find a bench adjacent to the prison. My country and state’s flags rustle as the wind shoves through Florence.
I plant myself on the bench until people begin filing out of the prison. I recognize faces from the clemency hearing—the Wilson family, their friends, various other supporters. I retreat to the car and watch through the rearview mirror as they converse, converging toward their cars. My eyes are locked on the mirror, and I’m startled when my dad opens the door. I almost ask, “How’d it go?” but thankfully catch myself.
My dad places his briefcase in the backseat and asks how I’m doing. “Good,” I say. Silence. Fuck! What do you say? I should have figured this out while he was inside the prison, I think. Minutes later I locate words that feel appropriate. “Are you OK?”
“I could go the rest of my life without ever seeing that again.”
But this is unlikely. He has other clients waiting in Browning Unit.
• • •
April 23, 1998: Take Your Kid to Work Day. I was nine, eager to replace school for a day with my dad. But we didn’t go to his office or the courthouse—we went to Camelback High School, where he was a volunteer, educating students on the legal process. I had visited my older brother’s private college-prep high school before, but Camelback was different: it had security guards and the student body was far more economically and racially diverse. I stayed close to my father, pressing my shoulder to his hip as we maneuvered through the crowd of students.
Inside the classroom, he began by teasing a few of the students to ease into the discussion: “What good are those Jordan sneakers if you don’t tie your shoes?” The class was quickly captivated. They all had questions, some about government, others about personal and legal rights, and he answered each one honestly and thoroughly, taking the time to make sure each student was satisfied before moving on to the next. “Does that make sense?” he’d ask. “Tell me if it doesn’t.” The topics kept inching closer to home: “Can a cop search your car without a warrant?” I didn’t know at the time this was essentially free legal advice.
He’d always claimed that, if he had his way, high school students would take field trips to museums and plays and prisons, with a strong emphasis on the latter. They have to see what can happen, he’d insist. Right in front of me, the once empty words became manifest.
This was supposed to be a State Bar of Arizona volunteer program where lawyers lectured weekly in senior government classes and prepared the students to conduct a mock trial at semester’s end, but my father began referencing a murder case I didn’t know existed, let alone that he was working on it. He had missed class the previous week because he had a clemency hearing and had to visit Florence. Both the pope and the president of Honduras had filed petitions for clemency, yet the board refused. The students had been keeping track of the case’s progress during my father’s visits and were now eagerly waiting to hear the conclusion.
The room went quiet until a pudgy teenager with forearm tattoos mustered the courage to address the elephant in the room that everyone had been dodging. “What happened to your client, Mr. Maynard? Did he die?”
My father’s poise began to erode. “Yes, he died.”
Not a whisper in the room, but my thoughts ricocheted frantically inside my skull. What was this kid talking about? My father worked in an office with a large wooden desk, shelves lined with hardcover books and pictures of his family. This hardly seemed the venue for death. He was a lawyer, which meant . . . I had no idea what this meant. I’d never asked. Never really cared.
All at once, I realized my father had a secret, which everyone in the room knew but me. Which, I guess, means it wasn’t much of a secret. He’d been representing men on death row for years and had managed to reduce all of their sentences. Until recently. He never spoke much about his job at home. I knew he went to trial, sometimes representing people accused of committing crimes, but he never mentioned words like “murder.” I didn’t understand that he was primarily a commercial litigator with a zest for criminal law and constitutional challenges. The former paid the bills; the latter were passion projects, often pro bono, his self-assigned civic duty.
My father’s voice cracked and vibrated as he explained what it was like to watch a man die. He detailed the procedure: who was there, how long it took. Who sat on the other side of the glass, watching.
“I’d been representing this man for eleven years, so I wanted to shake his hand before he died. But they wouldn’t let me,” he said. “It was one of the only times I’d ever been ashamed of both my state and the legal process.”
“But Mr. Maynard, didn’t he kill someone?” a student asked.
“Maybe,” he responded. “But now we have, too.”
When we left the classroom, he struggled to regain his fatherly posture. He gripped my shoulders tightly with his large hands as if to say, We’re good now, back to normal. I wasn’t having it. He was suddenly a stranger with a crazy job, someone who cried. For the first time ever, I wanted to be at school.
Back in the car, we exited the parking lot, but not the way we came in. My father pulled up next to the large blue gate enclosing the baseball field and put the car in park.
“If I show you something, promise you’ll never do it?”
“Sure,” I said, hoping it had nothing to do with death. For the next ten minutes, we watched students sneak across the field and hop the gate to ditch school. We laughed as the shorter kids struggled to pull their bodies over the gate and at the cool kids whose sagged pants, impeding their escape, no longer seemed so hip. We laughed because it was funny, because the world had reclaimed its axis: I, the son; he, the father. We laughed because back then he thought he could keep me from hopping fences.
• • •
Driving back to Phoenix, my dad points through the windshield at a cloud of black smoke rising to the north. Something’s burning. Something big. For a moment, the desert disappears and we’re both spectators, locked in and mesmerized. We eventually pass it—it turns out it is way off to the side—but we continue to monitor the smoke cloud through the rearview mirror. My dad says it’s clear no one has intervened, because if they had started to extinguish the fire, the smoke would be getting lighter. Are we the only ones who see that something is burning in the distance?
We pull off on Power Road. Inside a restaurant, we grab a cocktail. And then another. It’s noon. My dad tells me about the execution: the divisions in the audience, how he was the only one there for Bible, how they had to remove the barrier between him and the Wilson clan because there were around fifty witnesses, and how he declined the invitation to watch from a different viewing section because he wanted Bible to be able to see a friendly face. He tells me about the last words, the injection. I think about the Wilson family and hope they feel closure, if this is even possible. Jennifer would be thirty-two now. I’m searching for a revelation but find nothing but questions. Where are they now? Did they head home, back to Yuma? Is that still where they live? Maybe they’re still in Florence, gathered with loved ones. Do they celebrate? Go out for beers? Has a burden been lifted at all from their weathered hearts?
My father tells me about Bible’s last words: “I’d like to thank my family, my lawyers—love ’em all, and everything’s OK. That’s it.” What will the papers print? Will they infuse a narrative? Will they acknowledge the truth about stories, that they’re dense and complicated? Or will they write headlines like: “In Final Moments, Bible Forgives . . . Himself.” No one but Bible himself, my father, and now I know the true meaning of “everything’s OK.” My father, worried that the executioners might attempt to excessively punish this notorious man, told Bible to say “everything’s OK”: a code to confirm that the IV was not connected to his groin, which is prohibited and significantly more painful than the arm or the hand. In the event of any misconduct, my dad could join a class action lawsuit.
We have another drink and leave. The sun pulses in the center of the sky—it feels like it should be later in the day. We walk to the car, connected and bound by genetics, history, blood—now death. It has been a summer of strangeness, the end of a year of emails and phone conversations about execution and humanity. We walk side by side, forward.
Months later I’ll email him, “Do you think this line of work affected the way you raised me?”
“Definitely,” he’ll respond. “When you see the terrible things that people are capable of, it makes you realize that your children are never truly safe. You want them to be, but there is only so much you can do.” He’ll tell me he wants his gravestone to read Dan Maynard—Good Father. He’ll add, “I plan on being cremated, but you get the point.”
In a way, Bible is an anomaly. He is one of my father’s only murder clients who was raised in a household with two parents. The majority are fatherless.
Before we get into the car, we stop and stare at the cloud of smoke still hovering in the distance, on display like cinema. The smoke has lightened almost to white. I experience a calming sensation, probably alcohol-induced, but regardless, I welcome it. Resistance has been applied, my father explains. The opaque blackness has become ghostly transparent as it cools, and we can see the terrain beyond.
“What do you think caused it?” I ask.
He shrugs as we duck into the car, because he doesn’t have an answer to my question or, for that matter, any of the confusion that has been burning inside me these past few months, or the years before that. So instead of trying to fake it, he continues to drive me to schools and courts and prisons so I can take a closer look for myself.
“What do you think?” he asks.