Instructions for visiting a murderer
Find the North Carolina Department of Correction Public Information System website. Enter the name of the offender. Write down the seven-digit offender ID number. Click on the box to see the photograph. Or you can do this later.
Write down the name of the correctional institution in which he is incarcerated. Write down the name of the corrections officer who will coordinate your visit. If you are invited.
Ask a friend who is a lawyer to search the record to make sure the offender is not insane. Write down the name and telephone number of the lawyer who handled the offender’s appeal and who is now a judge. Call him. If you must leave a message, say I am considering visiting
. . . and use the offender’s name. Say I am a friend of . . . and use the victim’s name. Say you would appreciate his thoughts on what to expect, given his knowledge of the offender’s mental state. Be direct (others have called before you with similar questions).
Answer the phone courteously at 8:30 on a summer Saturday evening. Thank him for calling back. Listen to the judge say you should go. Listen to him say that once you’ve been incarcerated 12 years, most people, even mothers, stop visiting. Listen to him say murderers are not like the shark in Jaws, they are not monsters, usually and they are more like you and me than we may want to know.
Thank the judge and walk quickly outside because you know that walking in the city helps everything. Walk to the river. Walk along the river for a while. Watch normal people doing normal things. Find balance.
Return home. Take a note card from the desk by the front door and write the request for an invitation to visit. Be direct. Make it three sentences.
Remember that you knew the offender. Remember what he has done. Remember that he can invite you or refuse.
Use sincerely to close. Put the note in an envelope and address it. Put a stamp on the envelope and look again at the address. Check the seven numbers after his name. Make sure you have them right. Leave the envelope by the door to be mailed Monday morning.
Tell one person you trust that you are requesting an invitation to visit a murderer you know in prison. Say yes, life sentence. Say no, no chance of parole. Listen when your friend asks why are you going? Listen to yourself when you say because I loved her.
Early on Monday walk to the post office two blocks away and drop the card in the inside mail slot.
Wait for a response.
Call the other two who knew her well when you did. Talk together. Mention her freckles, her strawberry-blond hair, how good she was in math, how well she danced, how much you laughed together, what a ringleader she was, an instigator, how she was the first among you to have sex but not by much, how you went over every detail she would give up that night at the Pizza Inn all-you-can-eat buffet. Say you have been thinking about her because you are all turning 50. Do not bother them with your thoughts of visiting prison.
Wait for an invitation.
Find the Christmas cards with family photos she sent each year. Look at the two of them and their three children on the beach, costumed, poised, staged, fun—one year in ski clothes, another in Mickey Mouse ears. Look at her children. Count back—estimate 5, 8, 12 that morning. Count forward—estimate 19, 21, 25 now. Probably older.
Look at the newspaper clipping your mother sent you of the firstborn’s wedding. Look at the old photos of her wedding. Call the other two friends again. Call her mother. Do not leave a message. Remember more high school silliness, a little college silliness, the long blank of the years after. (Note: Remembering a blank may leave you quiet.)
Ask yourself why you get to be alive.
Take the long envelope fat with pages out of your mailbox. Read the tiny handwriting pressed hard into the notebook paper on two sides. Twenty pages. Notice the putdowns. Notice the excess verbiage. Imagine that he has little else to do. Notice no kindness.
See the invitation to visit the offender in prison. Thursday from 1:30 pm to 3:30 pm works best for me but I’ll leave the choice to your discretion. I can tell you from experience that the two hour imposed time limit will simply fly by at an unbelievable rate of speed when the conversation is centered around events leading to the tragedy of Feb ’96 because, in reality, a proper verbal accounting of the situation’s nuances would take at least 6 months of 8 hour days or a written analysis as long as Durant’s Story of Civilization.
Notice his words. If ascertaining ‘Why?’ is your aspiration . . . it is my opinion that you will fail in your quest for a true understandable answer, just as no one can comprehend oceanography by examining a single drop of seawater or an isolated grain of beach sand through a microscope. . . . I suppose there’s really no one else left but me who knows what really happened.
Put the pages back in the envelope and look at the calendar. Find three dates. Write back. Receive a response. Choose a date. Rent a car. Drive 528 miles to the correctional institute in Bayboro. Think of her first car—that red Triumph Spitfire. Remember her energy, the curves of her body, her hands.
Drive all day. Do not call anyone. Be quiet. Listen to music. Be quiet. Drive down the Delmarva Peninsula, the out-of-the-way place that it is, especially at the southern tip. Drive over the Bay-Bridge Tunnel. Keep driving. Do not stop.
Arrive in Oriental at the B&B you booked. Let yourself in. Follow the instructions left on the table by the door. Find your room. Brush your teeth. Wash your face. Go to bed. Stare at the ceiling.
Hear you are there for her . . . to see, ask, hear . . . because she isn’t.
Sleep. Awake and find the muffin and coffee at the base of the stairs to the room. Dress in clothes that cover. Notice the rain on the rental car. Notice that the town is still quiet. Notice that there are more sailboats than cars in this town called Oriental. Follow the MapQuest directions to the prison. Notice that it is all gray and wet—the building, parking lot, fence, razor wire.
Look at the official visitor instructions that came in the mail. Take only your car keys, four dollar bills, your lip balm, and your driver’s license. Lock the car. Wait with the others outside the kiosk that looks like a Cineplex ticket booth. Look neither worried nor curious. Do not look directly at the other visitors.
Wait for the loud buzzer to sound. Line up. Show ID. State the name and the number of the offender. Sign your name. Go through metal detectors. Pass through automatic doors that open and shut with a Star Trek–like whoosh. Continue inward. Wait for more automatic doors to open and close—two of them. Enter what looks like a cafeteria.
Hear the guard say the offender must sit facing the clock. Sit in the chair with its back to the clock.
Look at him when he enters. Show nothing. See how much older he looks. See that he has no teeth. Listen for two hours.
Notice that he always says the tragedy that happened. Notice that he never says I killed. Ask why could you not just let her go? Why leave the children with neither parent? Hear I had come to believe they would be better off with her mom. Hear it takes courage to do difficult things. Hear like the men who flew into the World Trade Center towers. Hear no remorse. Hear no regret.
Buy a soda from the vending machine as the visitor instructions permit. Hand it to him. Sit back down.
Wait for the time to be up. When the time is up, walk to the door. (Note: You may feel oily, dark, in need of a Brillo pad to scour off everything that has come toward you in these hours, and the feeling may be physical and metaphorical.) Drive north through the Great Dismal Swamp. Keep driving. Drive home.
Receive the hundreds of pages of letters he sends you over the next six months. Save them for a while. Keep thinking of her. (That part is not hard.) Write from her son’s perspective. Write it as fiction. Write from her perspective. Listen.
Ask where are her words?
Wait several years. Attend a wedding. Be sociable. Hear the charming man next to you talk about his four children, his wife, how his father killed his mother when he was small, his career, his hopes for his children, his love for the grandmother who raised him. Talk to him about family and fun and food and New Orleans. Laugh. Dance with your man.
Hear her now. Hear love life. Hear love especially those who have no need for the word “lugubrious.” Hear that’s it.
Say back what really happened is your life.
Madge McKeithen is the author of Blue Peninsula (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), a collection of essays that use poetry to tell the story of her son's undiagnosed degenerative illness. Reprinted from Triquarterly (#137), a journal of writing, art, and cultural inquiry from Northwestern University that recently shifted from print to online publication.www.triquarterly.org