I Looked Over Jordan
By Melinda Williams
And a few minutes later, again.
I heard it coming from the cell down the hall. Singing away. One low note at a time. One string of melody. Just kept repeating the damn thing.
“Don’t pay him no mind,” the other officer told me. “Crazy.” He rolled his eyes and picked up his coffee cup. It left a stain on the metal table.
“He isn’t even going to get the worst of it,” the old man grunted. Officer Barry. Pot belly and yellow teeth. I sure as hell hoped that wasn’t what was in store for me if I kept on working here. “I seen way worse. No, he’ll die peaceful. Won’t come close to getting what he deserves.”
I walked up and down the hall to check on the inmates. We called them the Hellis boys. Real name of the place, Ellis Unit One. The old death row. My daddy worked here. My uncles, too. I joined the Army to get away, but sure as what was meant I’d come back and gotten a job right where everyone ‘cept me knew I would. Fuckin’ Ellis Unit One.
The Hellis boys were quiet for the most part. I’d look in their small window. Check to make sure they weren’t doing anything crazy. Never were. Unless you count singing as crazy, which apparently Barry did. He came up right behind me with that black stick and banged it against the bars on the door.
“Shut your trap,” he warned. There was no response.
I looked in that small window. The inmate had long brown hair, greasy against his pale head. His nose hooked down in the middle. Maybe broken it years ago. Maybe born that way. I’d never been close enough to get a good look. He was sitting on the floor with his knees curled up to his chest. Eyes forward. Mouth slightly open. Head jerking every so often.
“So, what’d he do?” I asked Barry when I walked back down the hall to our sorry little room. Fridge broke down. Smelled like shit in there. And the coffee he was drinking had been brewed yesterday.
“Hell, which one?” He set down the paper and looked at me. Looked at me like I was a dip shit. Like how the hell could this guy be Troy Langdon’s son? I didn’t know the answer, either. “And why do you even care?”
“Just wondering,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “The singer.”
“That mother fucker? Murder. It’s usually murder, Langdon.”
“What kind of murder?”
“You know what, son? Go march your smart ass up to the office if you wanna know so bad. Look up his damn file. I don’t have time for this.” No, but you have time to drink your stale coffee and stop an inmate from doing what might be the only thing he has left in the world. I knew the song, myself. My ma used to sing it when I fell asleep.
“No sympathy,” my dad told me before my first day of work. “They’re rapists. Murderers. Anything bad, you can guess they’ve done it and then some. Never seen a Hellis boy not deserve just what he got. You always been so soft, boy. Just do your job and shut up, if you get to thinking you know better than the state.”
“Yes, sir.” I was twenty-four years old. Still taking orders from the old man. Still saying yes, sir to every goddamn thing he said. Couldn’t even get my own wife to respect me. What the hell kind of Ellis Unit One police officer was I?
“I know you, Travis.” My dad got right in my face. Right there at the fucking dinner table. Right in front of Beth. In front of my ma. “Don’t be a pussy.”
“Yes, sir.” My hands were in fists. Under the table. God forbid I actually stand up for myself.
My mom and Beth sat there, not saying a word. I hadn’t even gone to work yet and my dad already counted me out of doing a good job.
“Swing low,” the man down the hall sang out one more time.
“I said shut your trap!” Barry yelled from where he sat. I guess it wasn’t worth standing for.
And that day before I left Hellis I did go up to the office and pull out the file. Cell number eight. Name: Jordan McCall. Crime: Murder. Murdered a man by the name of Joe Collins. Judy, McCall’s wife, had been hospitalized from her husband’s rage. I looked through his papers. He’d come home right in the middle of her cheating with Collins. McCall killed a man who took all he had in the world.
Stop thinking that way, I reminded myself. What did I know? Maybe he had a lot more than his wife in this world. Maybe not. Maybe he and Joe were best friends their entire lives. Maybe he felt betrayed like no one had ever felt betrayed before. Maybe Joe tried to kill him first. Shit, I don’t know. But all I know is I hear Jordan McCall singing right alongside my ma. Swing fucking low.
“Heard you wanted to know about a guy,” my dad said at dinner. I had just finished my first week. Why’d Beth and I agree to come over again so soon? To get my ass verbally kicked some more?
“Just curious,” I told him, taking a drink of my beer.
My dad folded his hands and looked me right in the eye. Mean smile. “Does it really matter why he is there?”
“Just curious,” I repeated.
My old man leaned back in his chair and held onto his pants right where they tucked under his gut. “They’re all the same. I coulda told you that much. Saved Barry the trouble of finding out about the guy.”
“Barry didn’t find out about the guy. I did.”
He frowned and shook his head. “Shouldn’t even bother worrying about what they did. All that matters is that justice is being served. That’s all you gotta focus on. You hear me?”
I set down the beer and stared forward, past Beth’s face across from me. As if I needed to see her embarrassment. Her own fucking husband can’t stand up for himself. I set my jaw.
“I’m taking him down the hall this week, pa. I was just curious as to what he did to deserve it.”
“So you can chit chat with him on his way to the needle?”
“Goddamn it,” I muttered under my breath. Like a middle school kid who can’t say shit to his own dad. Beth shook her head a little, she and my ma exchanged glances.
One time when I was six my dad yelled at me for riding my bike in and out of driveways. He’d told me not to. Then a car almost hit me. My dad watched it happen. My ma sat right next to him and cried. He screamed and screamed. There was a sweatshirt in my lap. I don’t know why he thought to move it. I don’t know why my reflexes weren’t faster than a drunk. But he caught me. Ripped that sweatshirt off my lap and saw my middle finger sticking straight into the air. Honest to goodness, I wet myself a little. Never been so afraid in all my life.
“You little fuck!” He took me by the collar and we didn’t leave his room for half an hour. Got out the old belt. When I walked past my ma sitting in the same spot, still crying her eyes out, I didn’t even stop. I went to my room and didn’t come out for the rest of the day. Couldn’t sit. All I did was lay on my stomach and try to sleep. Try not to cry. Try to imagine life away from this place.
That was the week they took Gabriel Taylor to the chair. My dad’s best friend from childhood. Gabriel killed his wife when he came home and she was messing around with the actual milkman. Talk about a small town scandal. The actual milkman. It was a joke among us kids. And my dad, my own pa, walked Gabriel to the chair that week.
“No friend of mine,” my dad kept repeating to himself for weeks on end. “Never knew the real him. Really fooled us all. Got what he deserved.” But you wanna know what I think? I don’t think he ever got over it. Call me a pussy, but I just don’t see how a man could get over something like that. Leading your best friend to the chair? No way, man. No way.
That night at dinner after my week at Ellis Unit One, I’d have bet he was thinking about Gabriel that entire time.
“Used to strap ’em to the chair,” he said, taking another swig of beer. “Goddamn ‘humane’ now, though. Problem is all the people who got a say. Only people who deserve a say is the victims’ families. And I’ll tell you one thing, they ain’t never complained. No, they wanted to see something smokin’.”
Beth shook her head and my ma did the sign of the cross over herself.
“And all them college boys. You could bring your own beer! Sit and watch! But now, now it’s like some sad occasion. Is that what you think, boy? It’s sad?”
I looked up only to see Beth staring at me with wide eyes. I glanced over at my dad. “No, dad.”
“But you do think it’s sad!” Beth shouted when we got back into the car. “Why can’t you just tell him what you think for once? Why can’t you just tell him?”
“When the fuck did I say it was sad, Beth?” I slammed my hands against the steering wheel. “When? Please, tell me when that was!”
“I can tell. When you come home. You don’t even look at me. You don’t touch me. Your eyes are glazed over. You’re in your own cell, Travis. Feeling sorry for yourself.” Beth just said it, plain out loud like that.
I started the ignition and drove home. I don’t touch her? Did she really say that? If I remember correctly, it was her who didn’t touch me. And she hadn’t for months now. Now all of a sudden that’s my issue? Well fuck her then. Because I hadn’t in so long.
And just like with my own dad, I couldn’t say shit to my own wife. She hated me for it.
“Your boy down there’s been singing up a storm!” Barry told me when I got to work that next Monday.
“He isn’t singing now,” I said. The hall was silent. Not a person shifting in their cell. Not a sigh.
Barry sat there and started laughing. Looking right at me, laughing away and wheezing. I hoped he might die right then and there. Heart attack from laughing. All I could do was stand. His voice boomed all around and echoed all throughout Ellis Unit One. If I were a Hellis boy I’d want to murder someone all over again. I made my way down the hall as the laughter died down. There was still a ringing in the air from those echoes, man. I swear.
First cell, sleeping. Second cell, digging at his nails. Third, tucked away in his corner. It was all normal until I reached eight.
And Jordan McCall was bloody.
“What’s the matter with you?” Beth asked me when I slammed the front door open. I was already unbuttoning my shirt. Already half way up the stairs. “Hey!” I ignored her. She’s always sitting there in front of the TV when I get home. Painting her nails or some shit. All day. Wasting time. Sure didn’t smell dinner waiting on the table. What kind of wife was she, anyway?
I undressed and laid there in my sweat, directly under the fan in our room, staring into the light. I didn’t look when the bedroom door opened.
“What’s with you?” I couldn’t get myself to look at her. I wouldn’t give in and tell her about today. She’d tell my ma. Ma would tell dad. Then I’d be called a pussy all over again and I’d be unable to look at Beth for a different reason. At least this way the reason wouldn’t be betrayal.
“Doesn’t look like nothing.” She stood there in the doorway. I’ll bet she crossed her arms. I knew her movements. Knew each thing she’d say. That happens when you’re with someone from the age of fourteen on. And guess what the fuck else happens? You start to hate knowing all those things. I started loving her more when I was away in the Army. Started thinking, you know, Travis, her eyes sure are pretty. Her hair sure is long and shiny and her body is just right. Hell, you’re one lucky bastard, getting a wife like her. It was when I came back home that I started feeling like maybe I wasn’t so lucky. Maybe I married some lazy bitch who didn’t cook her working husband dinner after a long day. Someone who wouldn’t, and possibly couldn’t, keep his secrets from his ma. A man deserves his secrets to be kept. He deserves it.
I didn’t get naked on purpose, thinking she’d come up the stairs. It was the last thing I expected, actually. As if she would touch me.
“Just because you’re all depressed doesn’t mean I’ll do you,” she told me like a teenage girl with an attitude. Do you. Since when did she call it that? “I’d feel like a whore if I did. Like you’d be paying me back by talking to me.”
“Fuck you,” is all I said back to her. My eyes were starting to hurt, I stared into that light for so long. Didn’t even hear her walk back down the stairs. Eventually I got in the shower and fell asleep.
Barry had the day off. And for a couple hours, I had the hall to myself. I was in charge of patrolling. I was in charge of the Unit. The Hellis boys were mine that day.
And I’d be damned if I wasn’t wishing I’d hear cell eight, Jordan McCall, sing.
Swing low… but he never did. Hadn’t all morning. Someone would join me after lunch. McCall, I wanted to say, it’s alright with me. You’re allowed. I won’t hit you. Hell, it’d give me comfort, too. I walked up and down the hall twice. Not a single man looked at me. I took a chance and stood in front of McCall’s cell. Stood right in front, looking at him. Took more than five minutes for him to look up and see me. When he did, I smiled. I smiled like an idiot. My dad would have disowned me, smiling at a Hellis boy. After what he done, I could hear my old man say.
I didn’t know if he’d get the message. I didn’t know if McCall would understand what it meant. But I took a chance and did it. I tapped the bars on his door with my own black stick. Tap… tap. Tap… tap. Tap, tap, tap.
Clanked the metal on metal in the pattern of that song. Even went further than I’d heard him go. And when I got back down the hall and sat down to my own stale cup of coffee, I smiled. I’d bet every Hellis boy smiled.
Because from cell eight there was a low and deep voice. It sang out almost too quiet to hear. It was beautiful.
I had less than twenty-four hours until my first walk to the needle. Had nightmares about it. Couldn’t eat a thing.
“I’m sorry about the other day,” Beth said at dinner. The dinner I’d scraped together. A heated up can of beans with barbecue sauce. She ate it up like it was gourmet.
“It’s fine.” An apology was the last thing I’d been expecting from Beth. It wasn’t exactly her style.
“You still going over to Pete’s to watch the game?”
She cleared the table. Said she’d clean up a little around the house. Even kissed me goodbye at the door.
I wasn’t five miles down the gravel road when I realized I’d forgotten the money I owed Pete from a few weeks back. Lent me fifty in a tight spot. I was paying him back with interest for saving me from calling my parents or Beth. Just ran out of gas, that was all.
I pulled up to our small house and parked under the tree. I drove a few inches too far and the tire hanging from the tree hit my front bumper. Always hung too low.
No light was on, far as I could tell looking at the three windows on the front of the house. I opened the door and stepped across the hard wood floor to the kitchen where we kept cash. I had the fifty five bucks in my hand, other hand reaching for the front door again when I heard it. Heard squeaking. Heard moaning. Scared me at first. Only a fucking pussy like me would be scared to hear that sound. Most men would find anger first, fear later. I was the other way around.
I walked down the hall, hands now shaking like leaves in the springtime Wyoming wind. Who knew what I’d done with the money. I took each step up each stair, holding onto the railing for my own life. Then I stood right in the doorway. Right where Beth stood when she told me she’d feel like a whore for fucking her own husband.
“Feel like a whore now?” Kept my voice calm. It even gave me the creeps. Mr. Dick-In-My-Wife jumped three feet in the air and somehow landed on his feet. Beth screamed and covered herself up with the sheet. I leaned right against the frame. The clock ticked. The branch I’d been meaning to cut scraped across our bedroom window.
“Travis, you don’t look right,” Beth said in a whisper.
I was smiling, I guess. Smiling because finally, I wouldn’t be what my dad thought I was anymore. All those years I spent afraid. All those years I let Beth get the better of me. Let her be a terrible wife. They were rushing back. They couldn’t tell. Not yet. And my police uniform and gun were on the chair right in between him and me. We saw it at the same time.
When I left and pulled out of the drive, the noise of the gravel under my tires echoed into the night. The tire was released after being pushed up by my bumper.
It was swinging low… just like me… just like Jordan McCall…
The sound beeped in the hall and I was in charge of getting him there. The door on Jordan McCall’s cell opened automatically and the sound for extra security was loud around us. I knew the protocol, but fuck the protocol. He stepped toward me. Barry was smug at my side.
“Let’s go,” I said, taking Jordan’s elbow. His knees gave out underneath him. I held on tighter and didn’t let him fall. When I looked at him I saw his eyes closed, his lips moving a mile a minute. His hands were clasped together.
“We can’t drag your ass,” Barry said. “Stand up!”
I turned on him. “You just shut your fuckin’ mouth before I shut it for you.” I knew my dad spoke to him that way. Now it was my turn. Barry didn’t say another word.
“Come on,” I assured Jordan McCall. The walk down the hall felt like forever. Each echo of our movements. Each breath that came from his mouth like a jagged blade rushing past my ear. It was his last moment to feel human. His last moment to be human. “You go ahead now,” I said long before we reached the room. He looked at me with tired, frightened eyes and I nodded. “Go on ahead. My ma used to sing that song.” A tear fell from his eye before he even began.
“Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home. A band of angels, comin’ after me, comin’ for to carry me home…” McCall sang it over and over. The words were hardly audible by the time we reached the security door that opened to the room. “I looked over Jordan, what did I see? Comin’ for to carry me home? A band of angels, comin’ after me, comin’ for to carry me home…” I’d bet his own ma sang him that song. His own damn name was in that song.
I saw a family waiting. They were all huddled together, holding hands. I was all Jordan McCall had. I let him sing. I let him sing for the both of us. Because him and me, we were the same. Both men who were robbed of what we’d had in life. Even if I’d hated what I had, at least it was mine. I led a man to the needle. A man who had been put in the same position that I’d found myself in not twelve hours before. And I’ll be damned if I don’t sing that same song now.