During the summer of 1996, when I was fifteen, my three brothers and I were split between our parents. I was in court for various charges, including a probation violation for habitual larceny and assault charges I’d acquired at age twelve. The judge told me I could either leave Asheboro, North Carolina, to live with my mom in Fayetteville until I turned eighteen, or go to a juvenile detention facility for eighteen months. I chose to live with my mom and so did my older brother Mike. By then my mother had married a third time and owned a Korean restaurant where I was put to work washing dishes. My younger brothers, Daniel and Albert, followed right before school started in the fall.
For my sixteenth birthday, I asked my mother to help buy me a car, since I’d been working in her restaurant without pay. In January of 1997, two months before I turned sixteen, she made me a deal. If I found a job and worked all year, saving my money, she’d help me buy a car in time for Christmas. I happily agreed and found a job at Taco Bell.
All year I envisioned how my new car would look packed to capacity, my friends’ arms akimbo out the window. The music system would pound as I rolled around corners, announcing my arrival as if a red carpet had been laid out. My popularity would explode as I graciously granted rides to whoever kissed my…ring.
Two weeks before Christmas, my mom took me to a car lot and helped me pick out a car. But when it came time to pay, she refused to co-sign although I could not get credit to finance a car at sixteen years old, nor did I have ten thousand dollars cash to buy the car outright. I threw a fit, demanding she explain how she was “helping” me buy a car if she’d neither co-sign nor pay the difference (I’d saved up only fifteen hundred dollars). She never answered except to say, “I no co-sign.” I raged at the humiliation I’d face in front of my friends, to whom I’d bragged all year about getting a car.
In retaliation, I withdrew all my savings from the bank and blew it on revenge.
Christmas morning, everyone gathered in the family room. The gifts had been distributed and we were about to open them—but everyone stared at me: I sat amid a mountain of fancy packaging, while they had smaller mounds around their knees.
“Okay I’ll go first,” I chirped, carefully selecting a present. I shook it by my ear, wondering aloud what it was. I unwrapped an expensive Nautica jacket and feigned surprise. “Oh thank you Santa—I’ve been wanting one of these all year!” I said sarcastically, before tossing it aside and snatching up another present.
I looked my mother dead in the eyes the whole time. Her lips were a tight line. When her face twitched, I felt I’d glimpsed a shark fin. I ignored it, along with the looks on my siblings’ faces. They didn’t know yet that I’d bought fifteen hundred dollars worth of gifts, mostly for myself, and padded the base of the tree with them. They thought our mom was showing favoritism.
After that, my mother went into attack mode. I wasn’t invited when she took the family out to eat, to the golf course, or on shopping sprees. I might go up to my room for a few minutes, come out, and everyone would be gone. I felt alienated and invisible. I was sorry, but clueless about how to make amends.
In 1998, Mike and I moved back in with our dad. One afternoon, Mike and I were finishing up an exercise routine on our weight equipment in the spare bedroom, when our dad barreled into the room and dove right into a verbal assault. Mike groaned, “Dad please, not now.” At that, Dad came at Mike swinging. Mike caught his arm. Dad punched him in the stomach with his free fist and it was on.
I jumped out of the way to evade wayward elbows and more than 500 pounds of thrashing flesh. The bench toppled, bars and plates clattered. All of us screamed obscenities. I was mushed into drywall.
I tried to break it up but got swatted aside. I seemed to be the only one taking hits, while they grappled with each other.
For four or five minutes they roared and cursed. Steel objects clanged around the floor, kicked this way and that. I got side-swiped into walls and knocked to my knees. They would not stop.
Mike pinned our dad against a wall, trying to control his arms and screaming for him to calm down. Dad frothed, his face reddened with exertion. Mike looked back at me, pleading.
I cried with frustration, shaking, keening. My ears buzzed as blood flooded my brain. Like many things in life, I didn’t know when I’d had enough until I snapped. Something like a war cry, wordless and guttural, erupted from my throat. It was a sound I’d never heard before. Without thinking, I snatched up a five-pound chrome bar, grabbed our dad’s right arm from Mike and shoved it to the side. Mike did the same with the other arm. Dad looked crucified.
“STOOOOOOOOP! STOP! STOP!” I howled. Aside from our ragged breath, all was quiet. Mike and Dad eyed the shiny bar I held high overhead.
“Dad, this stops today! Right fucking now! Do you understand me?” I screamed so hard, white flecks of foam speckled his cheek.
“Dad, we are your sons, not your fucking punching bags,” roared Mike, joining in. “Your sons. You had a bad day? So what? It ain’t our fault, so don’t take it out on us. We are your sons and we love you—
“—but we will kill you,” I interrupted. “We will beat you to death and get away with it and you know it. If you don’t swear right now to stop trying to hurt us…”
Dad quit struggling and looked back and forth between us. Tears brimmed in his eyes.
“Finally…my boys have become men,” he said, with pride.
Speechless, Mike and I looked askance at each other, then back at our dad.
“Alright goddamit! I promise! Now let me go you crazy sons of bitches!” said Dad.
And that was that. He never attacked us again.
* * *
After that incident with my dad, I moved out. I was seventeen. I started making a living as a full-time drug and fence (buying and selling stolen goods) dealer. By 2004, when I was twenty-three, I had become the production manager for a furniture manufacturer in Asheboro. I yearned for peace with my family, especially my mom. She had moved into a new house and allowed me to visit for a few hours at a time. She didn’t know about my illegal side ventures.
That year, around Christmas, I decided to win back my family. At the furniture manufacturer, I hand-made a plush red recliner for my mom. It looked like a throne. Remembering my selfish Christmas years before, I stuffed my pickup truck with gifts for everyone before driving to Mom’s home. My truck was a blur of wrapping paper streaming down the highway towards my family. I couldn’t wait to tell them about my new plans. I wanted to go to college. They’d be pleased and proud.
On Christmas morning, with most of us still crusty-eyed and slightly hung-over, we slumped around on couches. My sister Sara, from my mother’s second marriage, distributed the presents. My mom’s throne sat in the center of the TV room downstairs. She had been stunned and thrilled by my generous gift, which she took as a sign that I had changed.
Soon everyone had a pyramid of presents in front of them.
Except me. I had a shirt box. And a card.
From their looks, this was not a conspiracy. They were as surprised as I. They tried to downplay it.
“…it’s no big deal, Bruh…”
“…really didn’t know what you liked…”
“…had a ton of people to shop for…”
“George honey, it’s not about how much you get. It’s the thought that counts,” my mom offered.
“I know. You’re right, Mom. It’s the thought that counts,” I replied. “And it’s pretty clear what everyone thinks about me.” I could sense their collective cringe.
I felt ashamed and defeated, wondering if I’d ever fit back into my family. I wanted to laugh at the inside jokes too. I wanted to be safe and dependable. I wanted them to smile when they saw me, not greet me with the look of caution one gives to a rickety ladder.
Fuck this, I thought. Somehow I would break the cycle. I put on a plastic smile and said, “Hey, I get it. It’s no big deal. Look, I’ve got to work in the morning, so I’d better be heading out. Got a long drive ahead.” I went around the room hugging and kissing everyone. I didn’t know then it would be the last time I’d ever touch them.
Their sympathetic looks were almost too much. I couldn’t take it. I had to get the hell out of there. In my haste, I forgot to tell them about my college plans.
Two weeks later, I was arrested for a double-homicide.
Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row is a collection of essays written by residents of North Carolina’s Death Row. Each carefully crafted personal essay illuminates the complex stew of choice and circumstance that brought four men to Death Row and the small acts of humanity that keep hope alive for men living in the shadow of death. Now available on Amazon.