Part of surviving is knowing who dies. And then knowing what scraps of paper about their lives will be there to tell the story when it’s all over. Years ago, I wrote that Glen McGinnis didn’t know he would live forever. But of course, he didn’t. He died, in a prison in Huntsville, Texas. From a cell in Texas he wanted to write his way out of a date with an electric chair nicknamed “Old Sparky.” His letters, written to anyone who would listen, were filled with prison’s literacy: awkward phrases like “I was told that your person” and “I do hope that by the time this missive reaches you.” The way he wrote said that he was educated within a cell, his letters peppered with words no longer heard outside of prison walls. His letters that came from death row are part of this story.
In Huntsville, Texas, arguably the most incarcerated city in the United States, where nearly half of its residents awaken to the clank and crash of cell doors and some townspeople mark the passage of a day’s time by the shrieking count whistle that blares three times a day, McGinnis would scribble letters and mail them to addresses of people from all over the globe. He’d write women in Switzerland and Austria. He’d write a man in Australia, all making the small cell in Texas that he slept in encompass a huge swath of the world. He’d write as if the nearly 10,000 miles or two miles that separated him from whoever he wanted to talk to was simply the mathematics of a stamp being placed in the right place.
Death hung over McGinnis’s head like some contraption in a Kafka story. And that death, or the story of that death, became one of those things that made me remember why writing matters. He’d written these letters and I’d read the letters and learned his diction and knew his name and all of that shit became part of what wouldn’t leave my head for nobody’s reason. He killed a woman though. Maybe I should have started there. He killed a woman and was going to be executed for that and the hard part about any story is deciding who is the victim that matters.
On January 25, 2000, Glen Charles McGinnis was executed in Huntsville, Texas. It was during the middle of the Iowa primaries when Texas Governor George W. Bush sent back word that McGinnis was not to get a reprieve. The blood that pooled around the body of Leta Ann Jones Wilkerson was too much. In August of 1990, at seventeen years of age, McGinnis walked into Wilkins Dry Cleaners with a handful of jeans. Leta Wilkerson was working at the cash that afternoon, and when McGinnis asked her for the money out of the register she told him she didn’t have the key. Moments later she was on the floor bleeding, having been shot once in the head and three times in the back. Her eyes were open, but she was no longer living. One hundred and forty dollars were missing from the register. How was McGinnis going to live after that?
Fucked up that a story about another man’s death becomes my story about survival. Hokey too. Like remembering he died is the thing that reminds me that had he held on for a few more years, he’d have seen the Supreme Court rule his sentence unconstitutional. He was just a kid when he murdered that woman. News accounts show that he never denied killing Ms. Wilkerson, that he was remorseful. “I'm not crying. I mean, man, I'm young. I'm not crying, I'm not groping, but it's kinda sad that I got caught up so young," McGinnis told reporters before his execution. Caught up. And I just end up caught up, too, in a different way. Trading on the hard memories of his story to give me something. And sometimes all the giving has to offer is a story to loop back around to. McGinnis died. And he didn’t cry, but knew he was too young to be caught up. Too young to have killed Leta Wilkerson, and too young to be dead now himself. And I survive cause I remember.