Capital Punishment

With his writing career taking off, Sherman Alexie contributed a poem

Capital Punishment
Ivan Munk

I prepare the last meal
for the Indian man to be executed

but this killer doesn’t want much: salad
baked potato, tall glass of ice water.

(I am not a witness)

You know, it's mostly the dark ones
who are made to sit in the chair

especially when white people get dead.
It's true, you can look it up

and this Indian killer pushed
his fists all the way down

a white man’s throat, just to win a bet
about the size of their hearts.

Those Indians are always gambling.
Still, I season this last meal

with all I have. I don’t have much
but I send it down the line

with the handsome guard
who has fallen in love

with the Indian killer, they say.
I don't care who loves who.

(I am not a witness)

I don't care if I add too much
salt or pepper to the warden's stew.

He can eat what I put in front of him.
I just cook and cook for the boss

but l cook and cook just right
for the Indian man to be executed.

The temperature is the thing.
I once heard a story

about a black man who was electrocuted
in that chair and 'lived to tell about it

before the court decided to sit him back down
an hour later and kill him all over again.

I have an extra sandwich hidden away
in the back of the refrigerator

in case this Indian killer survives
that first slow flip of the switch

and gets hungry while he waits
for the engineers to debate the flaws.

(I am not a witness)

I prepare the last meal for free
just like I signed up for the last war.

That’s how l learned to cook
by lasting longer than any of the others.

Tonight, I’m just the last one left
after that handsome guard takes the meal away.

I turn off the kitchen lights
and sit down alone in the dark

because the whole damn prison dims
when that chair is switched on.

You can watch a light bulb flicker
on a night like this

and remember it too clearly
like it was your first kiss

or the first hard kick to your groin.
It's all the same

when I am huddled down here
trying not to look at the clock

look at the clock, no, don’t
look at the clock, when all of it stops

making sense; a salad, a potato
a drink of water all taste like heat.

(I am not a witness)

I want you to know I tasted a little
of that last meal before I sent it away.

It’s the cook’s job, to make sure
and I was sure I ate from the same plate

and used the same exact fork and spoon
that the Indian killer would use later

in his cell. Maybe a little bit of me
lodged in his stomach, wedged between

his front teeth, his incisors, his molars
when he chewed down on the bit

and his body arched like modern art
and his body curved organically, smoke rising

from his joints, wispy flames decorating
the crown of his head, the balls of his feet.

(I am not a witness)

l sit here in the dark kitchen, when
they, I'm alone, when they do it

meaning, when they kill him, kiIl
and add another definition of the word

to the thesaurus. America keeps filling
its thesaurus. America is the only country

with a thesaurus, with a thesaurus
like this: write down kill and everybody

in the audience shouts out exactly how
they spell it, what it means to them

and all of those answers are taken down
by the pollsters and the secretaries

who take care of the small details.
Time of death, pulse rate, press release.

I heard a story once about some reporters
at a hanging who wanted the hood removed

from the condemned’s head, so they could look
into his eyes and tell their readers

what they saw there. What did they expect?
All the stories should be simple.

1 death + 1 death = 2 deaths
Let’s throw the killers in one grave

and victims in the other, let's
form sides and have two separate feasts.

(I am a witness)

I prepared the last meal
for the Indian man who was executed

and have learned this: if any of us
stood for days on top of a barren hill

during an electrical storm
then lightning would eventually strike us

and we'd have no idea for which of our sins
we were reduced to headlines and ash.

Published 8/24/94

Cozette Phillips: Exercises in Futility @ Trackside Studio

Wednesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 29
  • or