guest-edited by Danielle Evans
Florence Holmes kept her knife in Psalm 94.
An eight-inch stiletto with a pearl white handle. Folks saw her walking around town, King James sticking out her purse, and they’d get to thinking she was holy now. That she’d found religion after what happened and all, like she was going to become a church lady, buy herself a big hat and sit in the front pew, white gloves up to her elbows. But the truth was that Bible was thick enough to hide the blade and she wouldn’t go anywhere without either. She had a gun, too, of course. A shotgun under their bed, and a pistol her husband Barrett stashed in the glovebox, loaded and ready. But she didn’t want to use the gun. For twelve years, she’d carried that blade in Psalm 94, hoping she’d be walking around town one day and out of nowhere, she’d see him. Andy Robinson, blond and lanky and looking into the open hood of a truck at the auto shop or playing basketball outside of Crawford High School, sweating and smiling, his arm curling toward the rim like a question mark. Florence wouldn’t say nothing. She’d watch him a minute through the chain link fence—he wouldn’t notice her, too busy panting and running up and down the court—and when he was standing by the metal bench, wiping his face with his shirt, she would sneak up behind him with Psalm 94 and shove that knife clean inside him.
Florence never had a question about what she’d do if she saw Andy Robinson again. But that was before the sheriff caught him. Now the state of Louisiana was set to execute him, and Florence only felt sorry that she didn’t get to Andy first, with her Bible and that beautiful blade. In her head, it was always the knife. She wanted to feel Andy’s body collapse into that pearl white handle. She wanted to pull out the glinting silver and stick it in again, always into his side, never across his throat because that’s the way you might kill a hog. Quick. Merciful. She wanted Andy Robinson to drain slow. She wanted to feel him twitch and fight to live. You couldn’t get that with a gun.
Andy Robinson’s death was set for September 3rd , 1993. Nobody knew the time nor the hour. The Crawford Daily said that on his final day, he would be moved to a cell near the execution chamber in Camp F, and the execution would take place any time between six PM and midnight. The only person who knew exactly when was the Warden; the rest of the inmates at Angola were never told when an execution was taking place so they wouldn’t riot. Not that anyone would riot on behalf of Andy Robinson. Prisoners hate child killers.
When the Daily arrived at the Crawford Coffee Cup Diner that morning, everyone huddled around it, searching for details about the time of death. The cook thought it would be late. A waitress didn’t see why, it wasn’t like the governor was planning on calling to halt the execution at the last minute. Why not just get it over with, save everyone the trouble and time? The diner owner said they should just crumple the paper and toss it in the garbage before Florence and Barrett came in for their morning coffee, and everyone agreed that would be best. Most felt silly for wondering. Why did they care when Andy Robinson would take his last breath? He would be dead soon and that was all that mattered. There could be justice in Crawford, even for little Black girls, and the Holmeses were lucky to receive it. No one would have to think about the murder again. No need to hide the Daily when Florence and Barrett Holmes stepped into the diner, no need to smile extra wide when you led them to their booth by the window, no need to give them extra cream, extra sugar, extra butter for their toast, all the little extra things folks felt they deserved.
Florence and Barrett always sat in the back booth by the window. The Crawford Coffee Cup Diner was squat and long like a shoebox and Florence had to sit by the window or she felt like a trapped bug. Her husband liked to stare out the window although there was nothing to see except the faded gray parking lot, and beyond, the steel bridge stretching over the Calcasieu River that pointed toward New Orleans. But that morning, he turned from the window, cupping the steaming mug, and asked her to pick up ice cream after work.
“The ones with the little pecans in them?” he said. “Can you do that for me, honey?”
Florence knew what he was up to, but she didn’t say anything. She leaned against the table and took a sip, her stomach squishing against the black rubber. She had put on weight in the past twelve years. She wasn’t bothered by it—she had always been too skinny; the other kids used to laugh at her chicken legs and call her Olive Oyl—but she couldn’t tell if Barrett had even noticed.
“We don’t have any?” she said.
“Not that I seen.”
“You look in the ice box?”
“Course. Where else would I look?”
He gave her a teasing smile, that same crooked smile she used to think was charming when they’d met thirty years ago.
“Why don’t you just say it?” she asked.
“That you don’t want me to go.”
“You already know I don’t want you to go.”
“Then why don’t you just say it?”
“What I need to say it for if you already know it?” He shrugged. “It ain’t civilized, Flo. Watching a man die.”
The coffee was too hot, but she took a sip anyway, staring across the table at where Barrett’s name was stitched across his heart. Under the table, she pressed her leg against her purse where the Bible bulged, the knife marking Psalm 94 instead of a gold ribbon. Barrett thought she carried the knife because she was afraid. She still remembered the way his eyes had flickered when he first saw it. For a second, Florence had thought he might let out a big laugh, the way he used to when she’d lock the car doors at the drive-in. What you scared about, he’d say, don’t you know I’m here to protect you? But when she slipped the knife and Bible in her purse, his eyes touched the silver and he just nodded a little. She’d never told him she wasn’t scared. She’d never been less scared in her life. She had just buried her only child, and she felt calm and steady like she was rocking on the porch swing. Moving, but still, still. Now ten years she’d been carrying that knife—even after Andy Robinson was found, even after he had been given death—and she planned to carry it until the moment she watched him drop dead. But it still wasn’t enough. She wanted to dip her hands in Andy Robinson’s blood like it was warm dishwater.
“Well, I guess I ain’t civilized then,” she said.
Wanting to kill someone felt like a type of love. Before they caught him, Florence worried about Andy as often as his own mama might: cotton soft thoughts, like was he fed? Was he bloodied? Was he well? Was he sleep at a bus stop? Did he remember to bring a jacket? Bet he forgot. Bet he never remembered to bring a jacket. He was on the run for three months, and all that time, she worried that he might catch cold or starve. The only thing worse than him getting away was him dying a natural death. She didn’t want there to be anything natural about the way Andy Robinson left this earth. And she worried about him, praying that nothing or no one else would touch him until the sheriff got to him first. Now that he was locked away, she still thought about Andy every day, little thoughts that felt like touches in the dark. Just to reassure herself that she hadn’t imagined him—that this long, lanky boy on the front page with those soft eyes had used his knobby hands to spread her daughter’s thighs like a wishbone before he hogtied her with her carnation pink sweater and tossed her in the Calcasieu River.
Last night, Florence had cooked dinner and wondered what Andy would pick for his last meal. A porterhouse steak, maybe, or crawfish étouffée. She imagined herself surprising Andy. When he sat down for his final meal, she would ease on out the kitchen. Tie a napkin around his neck. Lay a silver tray in front of him and peel back the top to serve him the meal the sheriff’s deputy had found in a Snoopy lunchbox along the riverbank: a crushed bag of animal crackers and half a sandwich with the crusts cut off.
After she left the Crawford Coffee Cup Diner, Florence stacked cans at the Market Basket. She didn’t have an official job title. She’d started in high school as a bag girl, then a cashier who chatted with everyone who came through her lane. She smiled and asked how was your day and mhm, did you see that picture of her in Jet and don’t worry about it, I got an extra coupon right here. But that was years ago. Now she just stacked cans. Her manager, Mr. Wilson, white but kind, set aside a gray stool for her, and each morning, she squatted on it and slowly built towers of green beans, peas, corn, chili, soup. Steady, simple work. One can on top of another, tiny circle inside a big circle. All morning long. She never talked to anyone. When folks came in to ask where something was, Florence just pointed. Aisle 4. Aisle 1. Back shelf.
That morning, Florence was stacking baked beans on the end of Aisle 3 when she heard a commotion near the front door. Mr. Wilson was standing in the doorway, hands on his hips, and when Florence poked her head out of the aisle, she saw Judy Robinson and her passel of children trying to push their way into the Market Basket.
Since the trial, Florence had only seen Judy from afar—crossing the street to the gas station, ducking into the laundromat—but she looked the same, ruddy with curly blonde hair. The only thing different about her was the litter of kids circled around her. During the trial, there had been one baby, a little girl Judy cradled while she cried on the witness stand and told the jury how Andy always helped take care of his little sister, how he held her real soft. How could someone that held a baby that soft do the things they said he’d done? It was someone else. He was just scared, that’s all. That’s why he ran. Not because he done it but because it was someone else and he was just scared. In the courtroom, Florence had wrung her hands, staring into the baby’s blue eyes when she yawned or giggled or snuggled into her mama’s neck. Now there were four children gathered around Judy, one pawing at her hip, the others chasing each other in front of the door, trying to dart past Mr. Wilson. Judy’s eyes widened when she saw Florence.
“You stay back,” Judy said, then to Mr. Wilson, “You keep her away from me.”
“I said get her out of here,” Florence said.
She was gripping the can of baked beans as tight as she could. In her hand, it felt like a weapon. Like she could pin Judy Robinson on the checkered linoleum floor and smash the can into her face, for crying on the witness stand, for birthing Andy and the others after him, for daring to have all those kids in the first place. Florence’s life had stopped in the last ten years, but Judy’s had only started to bloom.
“I don’t want trouble,” Judy said. “I just wanna make my boy some cheesy grits.”
“Well, go buy your cheesy grits some place else,” Mr. Wilson said.
“I don’t have time,” she said. “They only let me see him til noon.” One of her boys ran into her and she swayed, rubbing the buttons on the front of her dress. “Please,” she said. “I don’t need but one box.”
“They ain’t gonna let you bring in food from the outside,” he said.
“All he asked me for was some cheesy grits,” she said. “I don’t need but one box.”
“Lord almighty,” Mr. Wilson said. “Go get your damn grits and get out of here, will you?”
He stepped aside, and the children ran laughing into the store, skidding on the checkered linoleum. Judy gave her one last look before disappearing up one of the aisles. Florence just squeezed the can of baked beans and watched her go. Mr. Wilson touched Florence’s shoulder.
“Why don’t you go work on your cans?” he said.
Steady, simple work. One right on top of the other. But when Florence gripped the stool under her, her hands were shaking. She bent, reaching for another can of beans, and when she straightened, there was the grubby little girl with fuzzy blonde braids standing next to her display.
“Bet I can reach all the way up there,” the little girl said, pointing to the top of the stack.
She had to be around nine, with a chubby baby’s face, but the way she stood there with her hands jammed in the pockets of her Mickey Mouse overalls made her seem older. She leaned back, eyeing the silver towers of cans, but Florence ignored her, reaching into her crate for another.
“What you gonna give me if I do it?” the little girl said. “A dollar?”
Her cheek was dusted with white powder, like she’d just stuck her whole face in a box of doughnuts or maybe just a bag of sugar itself, and Florence resisted the urge to lick her finger and swipe the sweetness away.
“A quarter?” the girl said. “Bet you a quarter I can reach it.”
What kind of mama let her child go out looking like that anyway? Hair all over her head, food stains still on her cheeks.
“How about a penny? I’ll do it for a penny.”
She put the final can on top, then flexed her empty hands inside her lap. The little girl inched closer. She made Florence nervous, the way she stared with those big blue eyes.
“Go find your mama,” Florence said.
“She’s right there,” the girl said.
She pointed at the checkout lane where Judy Robinson was standing with her box of grits.
“I tried to tell him,” Judy told the cashier, digging into her fabric coin purse. “They’re gonna get cold. Cheesy grits don’t stay warm. But that’s all he wanted. I tried to tell him. Why don’t he listen to me?”
There was a crash. Florence jerked, and when she turned around, she saw her towers of cans scattered across the floor, the little girl next to them.
“I reached it,” she said, “and you wasn’t even watchin’.”
The girl’s name was Raylene.
Florence learned it quick enough, listening to the teacher holler at her every five minutes. Raylene, stop jumpin off those swings! Raylene, don’t you dig up all that dirt! Raylene, what’d I tell you about cuttin in line for the slide? You wait your turn just like everyone else. Around two, Florence sat on a bench outside Crawford Elementary School, her Bible in her lap, watching the children play through the chain link fence. Through the iron diamonds, the kids scrambled on top of the jungle gym, pushed each other on swings, climbed across the monkey bars while the teacher walked back and forth, a whistle hanging from her neck. Only one teacher for all those kids. When Florence was sure, she tucked her Bible under her arm and crossed the street toward the corner of the playground where the teacher had sent Raylene to sit by herself.
“Raylene,” she said.
The girl’s name felt funny in her mouth. Raylene. A big name for a little girl with fuzzy blonde braids, but she turned around anyway, and when she saw Florence pressed against the fence, her fingers curled around the links, she smiled.
“You the can lady,” Raylene said.
“Yep, that’s me,” Florence said. “Come on now, Raylene. You got to come with me.”
Raylene squinted up at her. “How come?”
“Because your mama said.” Florence shifted her Bible under her other arm. “She sent me for you. You got to come with me now. Your mama sent me to get you.”
She thought Raylene might scream. Small part of her hoped it, even. But Raylene just glanced over her shoulder at the teacher—still strolling around the basketball court, swinging her whistle as she walked—and she hopped off the ground, dusting clumps of grass off the seat of her pants before she ran toward the fence opening. Too easy, Florence thought as Raylene came bounding toward her. Was it always this easy, just the whispering of a name through a fence? Maybe it was always that easy to do what you want, you just had to believe you had the power first. Maybe the hard part was the deciding to do it. Once that happened, everything else just glided right after it.
“Come on,” Florence said. “We got to go.”
She started walking faster now toward the crosswalk. She was starting to feel jittery. Of course someone would stop her. You couldn’t just walk off with someone else’s child. The teacher would spin around and see them, Florence in her green Market Basket polo shirt and Raylene in her grass-stained overalls, and she would know that Judy Robinson was white and young and thin and blooming, not this old Black woman with the graying hair, clutching a Bible to her rounded middle. Or one of the kids would point through the fence, hey where’s Raylene going? Why she gets to leave early? Or even Raylene herself would finally remember something her mama had told her way back about not going off with strangers, no matter how friendly they look—why didn’t children listen? why didn’t they remember?—and she’d dig her heels on the sidewalk and refuse to go any farther. But there was no other sound except for the leaves scraping on the sidewalk and the chains from the swing rambling and children laughing in the afternoon sun.
Florence stepped off the curb and she felt Raylene take her hand as they crossed the street.
“Where we goin’?” Raylene asked. Her hand was soft, sticky.
“Just for a little walk,” Florence said. “We’re just gonna take a little walk first.”
“Did my mama tell you she takes me for ice cream after school?” Raylene asked.
“Mhm. She sure did.”
“Every day. She lets me get two scoops. Not just one.”
“Mhm,” Florence said. “We just gotta take a little walk first.”
She was heading toward the river, and Raylene, still holding her hand, was scrambling to keep up. Florence had forgotten what it was like to walk alongside a child. Short legs, you had to slow down a bit. And then sometimes they dawdle. Amber always dawdled. Dillydallying, here and there, stopping to snatch a flower, bending to scoop a roly poly onto a leaf, picking up lost buttons, bottle caps, paperclips. Nasty things you shouldn’t touch, Florence always told her, swatting at her hand. You don’t know where they been. And Amber, bright, used to say, I know where they been, right here on this sidewalk.
“What you readin?” Raylene said.
She was looking up at Florence with those blue eyes. Still the dash of white on her cheek that Florence wanted to wipe off with a dab of spit. But there was only a little bit further to go. The riverbank was up ahead, and under the leafy trees, no one would be able to see them from the road.
“What book is that?” Raylene said. “Can I see it?”
Florence clutched the Bible tighter under her arm. She could smell the river, the almost stale, almost sweet, murky brown water. She hadn’t gone down here in years, not since she’d watched the sheriff’s deputy pluck tiny floral panties out of the bushes. But the water smelled the same as it had when she and Barrett used to spend summer afternoons here, Barrett fishing, and Florence lying out under the trees, their baby sleeping against her breasts.
“Bet I can read it,” Raylene said. “What you gonna give me if I can read it?”
“Shh,” Florence said. She clenched her fist. She could still hear Barrett whistling, feel the downy babyhair on her fingertips.
“You gotta give me three scoops,” Raylene said. “If I make it past the first page. Not just two.”
“When we gonna—”
“You shut up now!” Florence said. “You just shut up.”
Raylene scowled, reaching for the Bible, and when Florence stepped back, trying to switch it to her other arm, the knife clattered out. That eight-inch stiletto blade with the pearl white handle hit the dirt between them. Raylene stared at it, then looked up at Florence, blue eyes big, and Florence knew she would scream, prepared herself to step forward and clamp a hand to Raylene’s mouth, but the little girl didn’t say anything. She just crouched to the ground, reaching for the knife.
“Stop!” Florence said, jutting her arm out. “Don’t touch that!”
Raylene frowned and bent to pick it up again, but before her fingers raked against the handle, Florence grabbed her by her thin wrist and slapped her across the face. One hard little slap on her cheek, then another one. Raylene’s blue eyes filled with water, and before she realized it, Florence dropped to her knees and cupped the girl’s face in her hands and kissed her cheeks, once, twice, three times.
“You can’t be touchin’ things like that,” she said. “You’re gonna stick yourself. You don’t wanna stick yourself, do you?”
Raylene shook her head. She sniffled, her shoulders shaking, and Florence smoothed down her shirtsleeves, fixed her face into a smile.
“You gotta listen to grown folks,” she said. “You don’t wanna end up bad like your brother.”
“I don’t know my brother,” Raylene said. “He lives in a box.”
Florence dipped her thumb in the river and wiped the stain off Raylene’s cheek.
“My little girl does too,” she said.
The Crawford Daily said that Andy Robinson prepared no final words. The Warden gave him two minutes to speak, but the man was silent as they strapped him onto the table. No words for the chaplain, who crossed his body, nor for his mama, who sat on the other side of the glass, holding a bowl of cheesy grits in her lap. Not for Florence Holmes, who was not standing in the back of the witness galley, who had missed the Warden’s call about the time the execution was scheduled because she’d walked Raylene Robinson home before returning to the Market Basket to find pecan ice cream for her husband.
According to the Daily, the Warden took off his glasses, which was the sign to begin. The machine started to push three different tubes of chemicals into Andy Robinson’s body. But before his last breath came out like a snore, like the sound a balloon makes when you squish all the air out of it, before he coughed, sputtered, and gasped, before the eternal quiet, Andy Robinson spoke his last words. His eyes blinked open and he said, “I can taste it.”
When she read it in the paper the next morning, Florence didn’t know if he meant the drugs—did a chemical surging through your veins have a taste?—or his last meal coming back up. Or maybe he meant his regrets, maybe he’d swiped his tongue over his teeth and tasted blood or shame or his own life leaving him. Florence didn’t know if death tasted like filet mignon or cold cheesy grits or a little girl’s lunch, if death had a taste at all.
Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett earned her bachelor's degree in English from Stanford University. She recently completed her MFA at the University of Michigan, where she is currently a Zell Postgraduate Fellow in fiction.