Mark had never met a girl like Trina. He was new to school, Bradford Middle School, to be exact, and she friended him first, in the cafeteria, sitting beside him when he was sitting alone, her nails colored with a chipped black polish he noticed first thing, not looking up at first, her hands gripping her tray as he looked up from his book, trying hard not look a loser who was doing what he was really doing: Reading a book during lunch. My name is Trina she said and he said My name is Mark. And he got a full look of her hair and face, her kohl lined eyes, deep glossed lips, the nest of black hair springing up evenly around her head and dotted with stars and little falls of tinsel, he couldn’t tell exactly, he had never seen anything quite like it. She wore fingerless gloves, a torn jacket, a lace skirt, boots.
“You gotta stay away from that Potts girl,” said his grandma when he got home and told her about his first day. He was at the table with the same book he had been reading at the cafeteria: The Thousand Page Book of Grim Facts. His grandfather had given it to him not long after his father had died and Mark and his mother came to live with them in Starke, Florida.
“Why do I have to stay away from her, grandma?” Mark had wanted Trina to come over next day. They were going to go over The Grim Facts book.
“Cause she and her Mama are witches. Live out there in the woods under the oaks in their car with the alligator and bear. Homeless but want for nothing. Special powers n’ such. Devil stuff.”
“Leave him ‘lone, Violet,” said Grandpa. “He can have any friend he wants over here. Jesus got not truck for bias.”
Grandma clucked, shuffling around her kitchen, like she did when she wanted to talk back to Grandpa but he had given her an unassailable position. She was nothing if not religious.
Mark took advantage of the moment to take his cookies and milk to his room along with the Grim Facts. He sat down with his stash on the floor and spread it out before him. The Grim Facts book: The best present he had ever been given. The things no one else had said when his father had died. It was not like he couldn’t look some things up on line. But to have them printed on paper and given to him was like Grandpa having taken the time to give him a perfect Hallmark card. No one had wanted to talk much about the truth of how his dad died except Grandpa. “May you always know the facts, son,” Grandpa had written on the inside cover. “Love, Grandpa, Christmas 2017.”
An excerpt from Sea Worthy magazine was found in the chapter in Electric Shock Drowning: “Captain David Rifkin and James Shafer conducted extensive testing of all aspects of ESD for a Coast Guard study in 2008, including exposing themselves to low-level currents in fresh water. ‘Anything above 3 milliamps (mA) can be very painful,’ Rifkin said. ‘If you had even 6 mA going through your body, you would be in agonizing pain.’ Less than a third of the electricity used to light a 40-watt light bulb — 100 mA — passing directly through the heart is almost always fatal.” *
That day at the lake in Arkansas, Labor Day weekend, was the worst in Mark’s life. He and his family were having a picnic with their dog Chip. A young girl had jumped into the water off the end of the dock and was screaming. His father jumped in to help her and both of them died because of electricity leaking from a boat. A man pulled their bodies out with a long hook grounded with a rubber handle so as to not be electrocuted himself. They were laid on the shore and people tried to help with mouth to mouth and chest compressions. But Mark knew inside his father was gone. He looked nothing like himself, so passive and lifeless. That was not his father at all.
It was like his dad to be thinking only of someone else, this young girl who was in pain and frightened. Mark touched the entry of this description in the Grim Facts book. It was getting a little worn looking where he touched it. He tried to imagine what it would have been like for him, this experience of being shocked and in pain, but he couldn’t force himself to. Something stopped him from thinking about it all the way though in the chapter the levels of pain were clearly outlined per milliamp, every milliamp right up until death.
Maybe another time he could force himself to imagine it fully. It had only been a few months since this had happened and many days it didn’t even seem real. Sometimes he thinks his dad would never have guessed he and Mom and Chip would be living with Grandma and Grandpa in Starke, old death town, he would say, because of the infamous three legged electric chair at the prison. His dad would probably have laughed at the irony of their situation.
Would his dad’s spirit fly down from his grave in Pine Bluff to watch over them? Mark believed this every night though nothing about his current beliefs supported much in the way of ghosts and spirits. Nor were witches or any special powers they may have a part of his belief system which is why he ignored what Grandma said about Trina and her mom. Just an old lady scare tactic to get people to stay away from the fringes and go to church. Then Mark felt guilty for feeling unkindly to her. Her cookies were really good and crispy, just the way he liked them.
Trina was making a regular habit of coming over after school. She seemed to like his Grim Facts book and was able to talk about the Starke electric chair chapter, having been a resident of the area for an undetermined amount of time. To compensate her for her invaluable anecdotal contributions, Mark had his grandma make them sandwiches, which also gave his grandma the chance to see nothing untoward was happening in her house while his mother was away at work. Grandma could come into his room, unannounced, and put her mind at rest. And Trina, Mark suspected, was hungry. She always seemed to be, as she shoveled bits in with her fingers with the chipped nails.
“You get to see some things in the woods here,” said Trina, looking at the picture of Raiford Prison, home of Old Sparky. “Spirits so restless and they like to shake you to death. Meanest lady I ever met, met her as a spirit, she killed four men, including her husband and son, wandering around the cemetery where they put her ashes after they fried her brain good on Old Sparky.”
This was a little rough talk for where Mark came from, but it didn’t bother him. Most people were so proper Mark felt he could never see clearly enough to decide how he felt about everything, what he was thinking, what questions he may have. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” he said.
“You come to the wrong town, then,” said Trina. “There’s a whole society of them here. They believe in you,” she said, and smiled, a piece of pimento cheese having stuck to the corner of her mouth. “You kill people, they’re gonna hang around some.”
“Let’s write to Wayne Doty,” she said, feeling freshly inspired and pulling a pen from the cup of writing utensils on his desk. Wayne Doty had recently been in the news for requesting to die by the electric chair. “Don’t you want to know what he’s thinking?”
Mark conceded it would be interesting research and so they wrote:
Dear Mr. Doty,
We are writing this letter to you to ask you a question. Could you help us? We are doing a project on execution. We don’t know of anyone who has died by electrocution. Why are you asking the state to die by electrocution? Are you worried about execution or being electrocuted? Are you worried that what happened to Pedro Medino or Tiny Davis might happen to you?
Thank you for answering our questions.
Curious students at Bradford Middle School
They felt it best not to use their names of course, not even first names. And being so anonymous allowed them to be a little braver and ask about botched electrocutions – fire springing from Pedro’s head and Tiny, profusely bleeding. Doty was not a man you wanted to rile and had a reputation for being extremely dangerous. They mailed it using Trina’s mother’s mailing address she kept with a friend. Mark’s grandma would have hit the roof.
In a couple of weeks they got a response:
Dear curious students of Bradford Middle School,
I am honored by your curiosity and happy to answer all your questions about my personage. I wish I had me some children of my own but being what I am, I know it is best I remain a single, fatherless man. I want you to obey your Mamas and your Daddies and even though my Daddy was bad seed, there is lots of good out there for you to listen and obey, so do what Mr. Doty says, ok.
It is my right as a citizen of these United States to chose the means by which I die. Ain’t no one else killed who I killed but me and I regret I killed but I pro’lly kill again given who I am and that I ain’t never had no love from family and killing comes natural.
What I seek little chillrun is to help the families of the people I killed feel at peace. Also what I want is the release of spiritual freedom. I want to feel the spirit lifting from me at last, releasing me from the world, and I want to seek that by means the state can kill me most expeditiously, through the electric chair, even if it is not a perfect means. I want to let go, finally and most completely.
They were reading this at the house where Trina and her mother received mail and bathed and cooked their dinners. They were sitting in the afternoon light of the living room with the Thousand Page Book of Grim Facts. Mark had turned to the chart for the effects of AC current on the body in fresh water:
Probable Effect On Human Body
1 mA – Perception level. Slight tingling sensation. Still dangerous under certain conditions.
5 mA – Slight shock felt; not painful but disturbing. Average individual can let go. However, strong involuntary reactions to shocks in this range may lead to injuries.
6-16 mA – Painful shock, begin to lose muscular control. Commonly referred to as the freezing current or let-go range.
17-99 mA – Extreme pain, respiratory arrest, severe muscular contractions. Individual cannot let go of an electrified object. Death is possible.
100-2,000 mA – Ventricular fibrillation (uneven, uncoordinated pumping of heart). Muscular contraction and nerve damage begin to occur. Death is likely.
2,000+ mA – Cardiac arrest, internal organ damage, and severe burns. Death is probable.
“Look at this,” he said. He pointed out the chart. “They say Dad experienced about 100 milliamps.” He felt himself a little unmoored at this point, as if he didn’t have a body. He stared at the space ahead, an empty bookshelf. Where were the books? What was this place?
Trina took the book from his hands and put it beside her on the floor. “Maybe we should think about other things,” she said. And she leaned over and pulled Mark’s face close to hers. She kissed him, holding his mouth on hers. He felt her nails on his neck and breathed in her outdoor smells – sunshine and sky and oak leaf. Her gloss tasted like strawberry.
When she sat back in the patch of sunlight he noticed the trails of miniscule particles floating in the beams slanting down through the window. Maybe that’s all spirit is, he thought, maybe there is some left when we move, we go from place to place, when we die, a trace. He wanted to kiss her again. She felt very much alive. He tasted the faint note of berry on his mouth. The gloss was sticky and sweet and would surely linger through the fading day.
He tasted berry on his lips that night when he met Trina at the entrance to the Florida State Prison Cemetery. He couldn’t be sure, but as they held hands and looked through the bars of the iron gate he could have sworn he saw wisps of beings traipsing among the graves as if waiting for a bell to chime and the doors to swing wide and let them loose into the night.
* “ESD Explained,” by Beth Leonard. http://www.boatus.com.