fiction Issue 30

An Occurrence at Texas State Penitentiary

by Chelsea L. Cobb

A print in dark shades of prisoners in a medieval prison with very high ceilings.
View of a Prison, c. 1765 by Georges François Blondel. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art.

The clink of the handcuffs reminds me of my daughter’s laugh. 

The sun is hanging low in the sky behind masses of clouds. We watch as it stretches across an expanse of pale gray. My daughter’s head is thrown back, curls just like her mother’s dropping down the back of her neck. Her mouth hangs wide open. As she laughs, she watches in wonder as a murder of black crows create scattered dots through brisk air, flying in lazy circles. Their wings move in a deep hum. We stand in a field of Texas wheat, just a few blocks from the house, and we overlook a murky pond grown over with algae. Everything sways and nods, an eerie calm that resonates and swells the air with thick humidity. A frog’s croak. The distant smell of wood burning. The breeze snakes through the wheat, the long blades of grass, the fleshy pink lilies resting over the rippling water. The wind tickles her bare legs and she laughs again, then looks at me. Her eyes are gleaming, awake with simple joy. Clouds graze overhead, big and daring. It starts to rain.

The raindrops plop in the water like pebbles. She turns her palms upwards and squints against the water on her face. Lightning flashes, quick and blinding, transforming the sky from gray to white. Dawn to day in an instant.

I tell her to count and wait for the thunder.

One … two … three … four … five.

The thunder vibrates the ground with a deep grumble. It travels from the bottoms of my feet to my core, plucking my insides like a guitar string. Lightning strikes again and it lights every detail, the wispy curl rebelling against her braid and brushing against her ear. Her mother’s eyes. 

Remember this.

“Keep moving, inmate.”

I have not heard my name in a long time. I shuffle my feet forward and they feel detached from my body. The room is stark white with cinder block walls. The guard behind me shoves me in the shoulder and I stumble. I feel like a baby taking its first steps. I try to think of the time when I first felt like a man. Remember this, too.

It was on July 15, 1978 that my daughter was born. My wife, Elena, squeezed my hand hard. Her other hand was on her stomach, round and full of life. We were in our living room and she squatted in an inflatable swimming pool, ready to push our child into this world. We didn’t have money for a doctor and my wife always said that hospitals take away from the raw, beautiful feelings of giving birth. She was always one to question the system. She had volumes of books overdue from the library about natural childbirth, doulas, and water births. She had made me sit and watch a documentary about water births and I had watched as a woman groaned in a small bathtub. A doula elbow-deep in pink-tinged bath water raised her arms to reveal a purply slick infant. 

So instead of having a high hospital bill and an epidural, we prepared ourselves for a water birth. The midwife, an old college friend, was at my side rubbing Elena’s back and, in a firm, gentle voice, instructing how she should push. I wanted her to shut up and I wanted to vomit and scream at the same time. But then, my wife pushed over and over, and the midwife helped to deliver our newborn daughter, her little face streaming in water. The baby’s mouth hung open and she cried, loud and clear.

“She’s beautiful, Lena,” I said. We name her Linda. 

I think that’s why she has always had an affinity for water. Linda’s favorite spot was the pond at the bottom of a hilly wheat field. I tried to let her go down there whenever I could, rain or shine. 

Now it is a summer morning of 1982 and I look at my daughter. The heat in Rockport, Texas is smothering and relentless. Linda and I sit on the dock by the pond. The wind is light but comforting, like a mother’s cool hand against a feverish cheek. We sit in silence for a while, listening to the buzzing of cicadas. 

She turns to me. “I learned in class that this green stuff is algae. I’m not sure where it comes from though. Oh, maybe it comes from the sky! Or frogs? Like the ones princesses kiss.” She gasps, a new thought churning in her hyperactive brain. “Daddy, do you think there are princes in here?”

I smile. “Maybe.”

I hear the crunch of tires over paved dirt and I turn to see a black and white cop car creep to a stop at the top of the hill. I catch a face in the tinted window and a knot churns my insides. The driver window rolls down with a slight squeal and I see Officer Richard Perryman, his eyes concealed by dark sunglasses. His face is in an ugly scowl—as it usually is. He stays in the car as if he expects me to walk up to him.

“Muñez!” He calls my last name like we are old friends but his face is indifferent. He leans out the window and smacks the side of his car as if it’s a pet horse. I walk up to the car and shield my eyes from the sun.

“Perryman,” I say. 

“That’s Officer Perryman to you,” he retorts and laughs, a forced sound. Just a few months ago, he went through the police academy and you would think he became governor of the entire state of Texas. I mostly think he just wanted to prove he was valuable to his father, Henry Perryman, the mayor of Rockport. Everyone in town seems to love him, both Henry and his son, but there has always been something about them that makes me uneasy, yet guilty. 

A few years ago, Richard’s daughter died suddenly in the middle of the night as an infant. Her death devastated the whole town and a few townspeople, Elena and I, watched Perryman and his wife scatter their baby’s ashes in the Copano Bay. I’m still struck by the small specks of grit reduced to barely a few handfuls. His wife, Marsha, left shortly after their baby died. He never talks about either of them. Sometimes, late at night when I’m driving home, I see Perryman standing over the Copano Bay Bridge staring at the water. I see his face through my headlights, looking open and relaxed, no ugly scowl or grimace. Just open and wildly sad.

I used to like him. He’s obnoxious, sure, but he loves this sleepy little town fiercely and that passion drew me in just like everyone else. But he’s changed now and always looks at me as if I’m the root of all his past demons. In an awkward and condescending way, though, he still tries to make me feel like we could be friends. But only from a distance. 

“Anyway, we’re not here to chat it up. Your wife, uhh … Maria—“


“Yeah, yeah. She’s causing a bit of a scene downtown. I got complaints from people sayin’ she was ridin’ her bike down the middle of the street in traffic, wavin’ her arms around at people. She ‘bout caused a pile-up down on Lincoln. Laughing her head off and singin’ like a canary, ain’t carin’ ‘bout nobody lookin’. It’s strange-like, ya know.” He clicks his tongue. Tsk tsk. Like reprimanding a child. “I don’ know what you plan on doin’ about it but…” He looks away, his attention meandering to Linda. I look back and watch as Linda waves. Perryman smiles, a real one that cracks his lips, and he puts a hand in the air like a salute, then back down.

I sigh and sweat drips from my eyebrows, stinging my eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know she went out today.”

He squints and looks at me for a moment.

“You know, men like you seem like they got it all under control. I don’t want to see nothing bad happen to you, Muñez. I mean that. Don’t let these women make you look like a fool.”

He says this like we are a team. I can’t help but think that maybe he only cares about the well-being and image of the men in Rockport. I nod, my lips in a straight line.

“Yeah, well, keep her under control, ya hear? Don’t need no crazy business from her.”

I hate that word. Crazy. If he knew her or gave her a chance, he’d see a different side of her that’s gentle and loving, not some lunatic causing a scene. Elena has been lying in bed for a straight week, staring at the white of the ceiling. I don’t know what to expect from her so I brace myself for the unexpected, a ticking time bomb that I cannot defuse.

I want to tell Perryman that she is not crazy. That she does not deserve this. After all, he knows what it’s like to lose someone you love. But the thought gets stuck in my mouth and even though I try so hard to forget, I am brought back to the worst day of my life. 

It was the winter of 1979 and I was driving. Elena was in the passenger seat and I turned the volume up on “Saving All My Love” by Whitney Houston as we headed to pick up Linda from my mother’s house.

Elena and I had been talking about the day we met, how I had first seen her at a socialist protest at Los Angeles City Hall in 1970 and I admitted that I had only attended the protest for extra credit for my political science course, but stayed just to be near her. We were in the same class and a group of us went to a bar afterwards and I watched her rant about imperialism and politics. I knew I loved her then.

In the car, I crooned the lyrics to Elena, tapping her on the chin as I attempted to sing the highest notes.

She was laughing at me and I love the sound so much that I smiled hard enough for my eyes to squint and then I reached to turn the volume up more and my fingers grazed the knob when I saw a bright light and heard a loud honk but my dumb slow human body responded too late as a great terrible mass threw our bodies to the left and we flipped over and over, metal upon flesh upon metal upon blood upon bone until I didn’t even exist to my own body anymore and all I heard was crunching, so much that the sound was the thing itself and became another thing I was falling into and when I opened my eyes all I saw was Elena, oh God my Elena, her body tangled within crushed metal and blood, and I wondered how red could be so red and I retched and felt the weight of the earth on my chest, and the whine of sirens flooded my senses, or maybe the sound was Elena, or me, or the voice of God, or Whitney Houston, and my last thought before blackness was that the sound coming from my mouth was primal and small and feeble, not a man, and I closed my eyes tight, looked at the way the tiny veins branched and tangled into seemingly infinite paths leading somewhere that I could not nor deserved to see and this was my fault, my fault, my fault. 

Brain damage, hemorrhage, broken tibia, fractured skull. The doctors in the ER said these words after the crash and prescribed medicine and physical therapy. During the years of brutal physical healing, Elena would often switch moods like a light. One morning, she poured her milk in her cereal too quickly then threw the jug against the wall. She cursed, then cried, and I held her as she slunk on the floor, the spilled milk pooling onto the tile. The doctors tell us about behavioral therapy, how talking through trauma can ease mental wounds, and how it is common for manic and depressive episodes to occur after a traumatic event. But, when I watch my Elena spiral into herself, I long not for healing, but for time to reverse. 

But time lengthens and slows. Time isn’t as fast as people like to say. Time is eating away at my wife’s brain and all I can do now is pray she’s not consumed whole. I long to put her back together again. Like the calm reflex within John F. Kennedy’s wife when she watched the carnage of a bullet tear off pieces of her husband’s brain. How she mechanically reached towards the back of the car to grab a chunk of the pink matter to place it back into her dead husband’s skull. How she must have thought, I can fix him. 

And how terrible and colossal the realization was that she could not.

Do not remember this. Try your hardest to not remember this.

I shake my head to clear away the memories but they cling like cobwebs between my fingers. I clench my fists, sweat pooling in my palms and dampening the hairs on the nape of my neck. “I’ll check up on her.”

“Keep her under close watch. Women think they can just run havoc like they own the place.”

“Right.” I stifle an eye roll. Hot hatred expands in my chest. When I got angry, my mother would tell me to pretend to blow all my anger and rage out of my chest and into a balloon. It was stupid. I could pretend to stuff my demons in a balloon but it won’t keep them from haunting me. Under pressure, a balloon pops.

I step away from the car. “Well, I’ll be on my way.”

He nods and rolls up the window. He speeds away and I walk Linda home. When we arrive at the house, it’s silent. Linda runs up to her room. 

“Elena?” I call out, the old walls of the small house carrying my voice throughout. 

“I’m in here,” her voice is light but flat, a dead line. 

I walk up to the bedroom and Elena is on the roof. She stands just outside the window, the glass panes fanned behind her. Her arms span out to her sides and her red robe is billowing behind her in the light wind. She looks like the statue of Jesus over Brazil. A suburban savior. 

“I’m not going to jump,” she says, her voice just barely above a whisper, her back to me. “I just thought the sky looks so pretty from here. Really blue.”

“Just come down for me, okay?”

Later, she is in the freestanding bathtub, the water covering her mouth and I brush the mats out of her hair. The only noise is the distant twinkle of Linda’s music box from across the hall, her quiet hum matching in harmony. I watch as Elena’s chest rises and falls in a slow steady rhythm. She looks as if all the bones in her body were made of air. It’s a far cry from the stiffness of the muscles in my back and the constant ache drilling inside my temple. 

When I was going to therapy for anger management, the therapist would tell me in a sing-song voice to breathe in for eight seconds, hold it, then breathe out slowly. It was supposed to help with anxiety and maybe it worked for a few minutes but every time I look at my wife or daughter, anxious thoughts explode  through my mind. I often have dreams of Elena walking straight into a river until she slowly disappears. When I’d wake up, I’d reach for her and hold her to me, like an anchor.

So when I look at Elena now, her watery eyes glazed, I want to hit something. I need to feel something, anything but the feeling of losing someone who is still alive. I help her out of the bathtub and she lets me dry her off with a towel, unresponsive to my touch. I get her into bed, tucking the covers around her. She looks at me then, a glimmer of something I haven’t seen in a while, and puts her hand against my cheek. I lean into it and place my hand over hers. The palm of her hand is soft and smells like lavender. “You’re so good to me. I don’t deserve you.” But then her face drops again, a look of nothingness crossing through her features and her hand drops.

I find myself later that afternoon in the garage, underneath my Volkswagen, repairing a leak. I turn the wrench, slick in my clammy palm, trying to soothe a part of myself that needs to be in control. Linda has come out in the garage with me, lying on the floor and coloring. Heat rises from the ground and swivels hypnotizing and teasing. The air is full of the smell of rain. Sweat falls down the side of my head and into my ears as I try to brush it away with my forearm. I’m starting to think that I have become nothing but sweat.

I don’t really know what I’m doing to my car but I’m turning loose screws. Making sure it doesn’t fall apart. If it’s the only thing I can keep together.

“Well, ain’t you the handyman, Muñez.” 

Everything in my gut is on fire. I push from underneath the car on the small creeper underneath my back and stare up at Perryman. He’s leaning one arm against the open door of the garage, the white of his shirt damp with armpit sweat.

“What are you doing here?” I try not to make the question sound harsh but it rushes out like a demand.

He looks genuinely taken aback but he tries to smile. “I can’t check in on ya?” He puts his hands up in mock surrender. “I was just dropping in on some folks and decided to stop by. Again. Now,” he flicks a cigarette butt, still slightly lit into my lawn and puts his hands on his hips. I stand up then to face him, the sun crawling beneath clouds behind him and darkening his face from my view. “Didn’t I tell you about, uh…”


“Sure. Well, little ol’ Susan across the street said she saw her on y’all roof like a damned pigeon. What’s that all about?”

I look over at Linda, still sprawled on the floor and focusing on her coloring. “Linda, go inside, please.”

“But I’m making this one for you!” She exclaims, holding up a half-colored illustration of a rabbit.

“That’s nice but I’ll see it later.” 

She frowns then gathers her things reluctantly. Perryman watches her go inside and his face softens. He looks away and seems to forget himself. For a moment, I let him stay in whatever headspace he’s in and watch a bead of sweat plop from his nose. 

“Um. Look, I didn’t know she would—” I try to explain, my voice soft, but he interrupts me. His voice is suddenly brash, catching me off-guard, and crushing the reverie into dust.

“You’re a smart man, Muñez. But Jesus H. Christ, get her checked out or somethin’. She’s scarin’ off the poor neighbors,” he gestures around as if he were standing in front of a crowd of people. 

I try to take a breath, but it seems caught in my throat.

“We’re doing everything we can—”

“I’ll tell you what’s wrong. Get her on some meds or something.” He lowers his voice and leans in as if telling me a secret. “You know, my cousin’s a doctor. Uh, a psychiatrist or psychologist, whatever. He’ll fix her right up. Did some surgery on a guy who was probably cra—” He coughs. “Uh, worse than your wife.” He swirls his finger in a small circle around his temple and whistles. He stifles a chuckle. 

“She’s getting help.”

“Is it working?”

I pause. I push my fingernails into my palm.

“Honestly, that’s none of your business.” My voice is steady and low. He looks offended and his neck forms splotches of an ugly pale purple. 

“Now, Mr. Muñez, I’m just doing my job. I’m trying to help you. I’m only doing what is right. What is just.” He points down at the ground and his last words are strong but shaky, like he is trying to convince himself. As if he desperately wants to believe it and wants me to believe it, too. “I gotta protect my people from people who could hurt themselves or worse, someone else.”

“What do you expect me to do about her, huh? She wouldn’t hurt anybody.”

“You sure about that?” He cocks his head to the side. He takes a step closer to me and the sun is gone now with just dark clouds moving swiftly above. Humidity smacks me in the face and fogs my brain. “’Cause she’s unpredictable. What if she starts to get dangerous?” His face is serious for a moment but something in his eyes is different. His voice lowers and he takes one minuscule step closer. He looks sympathetic but almost as if the expression doesn’t quite fit right on his face. “You have a little girl. What if—”

“You leave her out of it,” I say, my voice steely. I take a step dangerously close enough to smell the tuna on his breath. “Don’t you dare bring her into this.” I will never be you, I want to say.

His face is a salmon-pink and wavers in my vision and transforms into a blob of flesh. My anger dizzies me, catapults me into a whirlwind. “Watch yourself,” his hand hovers over the gun in his holster, a gesture I’ve seen before and I force my eyes to stay on that hand. “You brought her into this when you came here.”

“When I came here?”

“Oh, you know what I mean. You know, I thought I could count on you as a true man in our community but maybe I’m wrong. But if you can’t even get your own wife some actual help then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that you do us a favor and just take you, your daughter and your wife out of Rockport.” He pauses and smirks. His voice is low and he leans in again. “You know what they’re saying about your wife, right? They say she’s just—” 

He counts the words out on his fingers, and his voice is so slow that they come out as if on a warped tape. “Sad…” I watch them roll from his tongue easily and without effort. “…Pathetic.” The sound of his voice sets everything in me on edge and I feel the same thick hatred from earlier expand to a depth larger than myself. There’s a noise in my head like a train rolling over tracks. It feels like I swallowed a storm and it is going to burst out of me like a hurricane, destroying everything, destroying Perryman, limb from limb. “ …Crazy.” 

But that’s all that I get from him. 

I hear a sickening crack and then I feel it, vibrating up my arm, the force of my wrench connecting with his temporal bone. 

His body goes limp and crumples in a heap. 

All I can feel is the impact of the chrome twelve-inch pipe wrench striking over and over again right down the divide of his face. My arm flies up and keeps swinging, tearing through the humid air, and falling again and again at fresh blood and bone and flesh, and I am the vessel to destroy, destroy, destroy, and if I can’t fix anything, then I will fix this. 

I don’t know how I ended up on my knees but I’m kneeling over him, his head lolled to one side. I am watching myself from a distance. Everything is red. Perryman is red. I am red. The wrench drops from my hand with a wet clank. I rise as if waking from a long dream. I am buzzing with electricity, a spark that will not go out. Suddenly, I am struck with the feeling of being totally and completely alive.

The next events are a blur and pass like grainy images. The sky cracks with rain. 

Sometime later, I am driving, and I constantly look behind me at the garbage bag in the back seat. I do not recall going inside the house to retrieve anything, nor do I remember if I walked past Elena or Linda. But Linda is too young, and Elena is too far gone in her own mind, so what is the point? My mind does not know where I am going but my body does. I come to a stop. I get out. Rain soaks me. Becomes me.

I lug the bag over my shoulder. His bones are jabbing sharp. His head lolls and bumps. I walk to the dock. I drop the body on the edge of the dock. I stuff rocks in the bag to act as an anchor.

I roll the bag over and into the pond. The bag opens, red eyes swimming. A pointy rock sits crooked on his head, the crown of a prince. His whole body submerges. I back up and kneel against the dock. I watch the rain wash the blood from my hands. I pray it seeps into me and washes me away, too. Above me, vultures circle, waiting.

“Sit down.”

I don’t know what day it is. Nor the month, nor the year, nor the time. It doesn’t matter. The guard puts a meaty hand on my shoulder as if he could shove me down. I shrug it off and look at the small black chair, the sealer of my imminent fate. When I think of electric chairs, I think of a giant throne attached to a million wires, but this looks less menacing. It is anticlimactic but the sheer normalcy of how regular and ugly it is, gives me an intangible feeling I can’t describe. I don’t feel much anymore but an ache. Every day I am waking from a nightmare that I’m trying to forget. Every day my life fades as if a dream that I’m trying to remember.

I sit down, the joints in my knees creaking. I feel like an old man. They strap me in, tightly across my chest, hands and legs. My heart thuds in my chest against the restraints. I look straight ahead at the pane of glass in front of me. I know there are strange men on the other side, their faces bleak and pale. I know they will watch me die. I know they will revel in it. 

My mind swims with all the legal talk that I had to go through in the past mindless days but what good would it do me? I am guilty, anyway, of aggravated murder of an officer but most importantly, the mayor’s son, the town’s source of sheep-like worship. I almost believed in him. I almost believed in his grand idea of Rockport being a community of leading men. But I am only one man, estranged from a community I can only attempt to remember.

I am guilty of stripping away life. Hell is not a place but what you carry around with you. It is the guilt that hangs over your head like a lantern in the dark. They put a blindfold over my eyes, and something is attached to my head. A sponge is shoved into my mouth.

Some people say that death is cold and dark. But they are wrong. Death is white and hot. Nor does your life flash before your eyes but it stretches into a space that feels like forever, filled with every moment I wish I had taken. 

I do not drive my car on March 3, 1985, and we’re in the kitchen, singing along to Whitney Houston playing from a tinny radio on the counter, and a spoonful of cereal, steady in Elena’s hand, hovers in front of a red-lipped smile.

I see myself during the summer of 1982 and I’m in the garage, fixing a leak. Linda colors a picture for me. She gives me the drawing, a baby rabbit with its mother. I admire it and hang it on the fridge. Perryman never shows up. His wife never leaves. His daughter does not die. Because in this one, he has never existed.

I have survived all the way up until this moment but staying alive is not enough. The thought of death is dreamless and ongoing, to a forever that is soothing and terrifying all at the same time. 

How elusive it is—time—to come and go and never stagnate. 

Suddenly, there’s a heat filling up every inch of my veins. This is how lightning feels, soundless and bright, like a silent laugh about to tumble out of your throat but gets stuck. Before the lightning erases me—an unfinished quantum equation etched on a chalkboard then suddenly wiped clean—I think of that memory. 

Of the way my daughter laughs like lightning striking. 

I wait for the thunder, that sweet deep rumbling sigh, and let the silence afterwards wash me into vapor.

Chelsea L. Cobb is a creative writing PhD student and graduate teaching assistant at the University of Georgia. She specifically writes lyrical fiction and dabbles in poetry, often centered around Blackness, gender, and sexuality. Her writing was awarded the Margaret Harvin Wilson Award and can be found in Stillpoint Literary Magazine, The Spectacle, and elsewhere.