Maggie and I sit on our front porch at dusk. We drink ice tea and watch the sun sink. In our fifty-five years of marriage, we have rarely missed a sunset.
Today, the sun bleeds through the haze, and the horizon is apple red. Maggie rocks in her rocker, knitting a shawl. I smoke a pipe filled with Captain Black tobacco.
Maggie sings a fragment of a song while she knits. “Give us any chance, we’ll take it.” She pauses, shakes her head, and keeps on knitting. “That’s all I remember, Poppy,” she says. She still calls me Poppy after all these years. Sometimes, it gets on my nerves.
“It’s from Laverne and Shirley,” I say. “We watched it on ABC back in the seventies—it came on the year we got married.” I sing the next bar to help Maggie recall the song. “Read us any rule, we’ll break it.’”
Maggie drops a stitch. “I rather liked that show, Poppy,” she says.
“I liked it too, Maggie,” I say. “Especially that episode where the girls got into a tizzy.”
“They got into a tizzy every week, Poppy. I wish you could be more specific.”
“They got into a really big tizzy that week. I think they were wearing space suits.”
“Were they, Poppy? I don’t remember them in space suits.”
“I liked them on Happy Days too. The girls were even funnier on Happy Days.”
Maggie sighs. “I never liked Happy Days much. That Jewish boy was such a braggart.”
She recovers the stitch and keeps knitting. Despite her comment, she sings two bars from the Happy Days theme. “Sunday, Monday, Happy Days. Tuesday, Wednesday, Happy Days.” She puts down her knitting, “It’s Wednesday,” she remembers. “We have to attend the hangings.”
The hangings now happen twice a week. Every Wednesday and Saturday, in towns across the country, fanatics are hanged in the courthouse squares. It is considered poor etiquette not to attend the hangings.
“It’s disgraceful,” says Maggie, “the way they drag those things out. The noisy bands, the endless speeches. Just hang them and be done with it, I say. Let’s be Christian about it.”
“‘First they came for the socialists,’” I quote. “‘Then they came for the unionists.’”
Maggie does not like me to be trite. “They came for you a few days ago.”
“Yes, but they let me go.”
“Wasn’t that because you turned in Doctor Beckman? Didn’t you tell them he was a writer?”
“He might have been one.”
“That’s true,” Maggie says. “If I started a journal, would you turn me in also?”
“I would never turn you in, Maggie.”
“What if they put you back in that jail? What if they beat you again?”
I have always been honest with Maggie. “They would have to beat me twice. I owe you that much, Maggie.”
Maggie looks amused—my answer must have pleased her. “Thank you, Poppy,” she coos. “You know how to make me feel better.”
I puff my tobacco and sing a Dylan song I remember. “People don’t live or die, people just float. She went with the man with the long black coat.”
“Be careful whose music you sing,” Maggie cautions. “That’s such a socialist song.”
I shrug. “They’re going to come back for me anyhow. I may as well sing that song.”
Maggie shrugs too. “When they’ve picked you up once, they always arrest you again. You told me this never could happen, Poppy.”
“That was before the bombings.”
“Those dreadful bombings. Will they ever stop?”
“He promised to stop the bombings.”
“Yes,” Maggie says. “He promised that, didn’t he?”
The shawl she is knitting is blue—blue is a primary color. It is not smart to knit in non-primary colors. When Mabel Leibman was arrested last week, she was knitting a beige sweater.
Maggie finishes a row. “He’s so much like Lincoln. I never knew how much.”
“Lincoln shut down the courts,” I say. “He shut down newspapers too.”
“I’m glad he’s a lot like Lincoln.”
My pipe is cold, but I do not fill it again. Captain Black tobacco is scarce. You can no longer find it in stores.
“I love you, Maggie,” I say.
She takes a sip of ice tea and sighs. The evening is dry and hot, as though someone left an oven door open. Maggie does not like heat.
I pat Maggie’s wrist. “Let’s go into the house. Let’s turn on Happy Days.”
Maggie taps her foot. “You never listen, Poppy. We have to attend the hangings.”
“If they hang them quickly, we can still catch Happy Days.”
“They won’t hang them quickly,” Maggie snaps. “They never do anymore.”
I don’t like to make Maggie angry; she has a tongue like a thorn. “After they cut down the bodies,” I say, “lets buy some frozen yogurts.”
Maggie swirls the ice tea in her glass, and the ice cubes rattle like bones. “Every time I get cross with you, Poppy, you want to buy frozen yogurts.”
I change the subject. “Will the Boy Scouts be there, do you think?”
Maggie strokes her neck. “The Boy Scouts are always there, don’t you remember? It’s the Boy Scouts who fit the nooses. It’s the Boy Scouts who cut down the bodies.”
“I hope they cut them down right away. Before their tongues turn blue.”
“They cut Doctor Beckman down right away, and his tongue was as blue as a smurf.”
“They would have hanged him sooner or later. He never attended the hangings.”
“No,” Maggie says. “It was rude of him to never go to the hangings. I don’t know where that man picked up his manners.”
“I’m glad they let me turn him in. It gave us this evening together.”
“This evening is hot,” Maggie says. She presses the glass of ice tea to her brow then takes another sip.
Our anniversary is today, and I have a surprise for her. “We are going to fly to Hawaii,” I say. We flew to Hawaii fifty-five years ago to spend our honeymoon. Maggie liked the rainforests and waterfalls. She did not like the dormant volcanoes.
Maggie rolls her eyes. “You promise that every year, Poppy. How quickly you forget.”
“This year I’ll book a flight early.”
“I don’t do well on planes,” Maggie says.
“We’ll sit on the beach and drink Mai Tais”
“That wouldn’t be much of a change.”
Maggie returns to her knitting. The shawl is getting thick. “I’m glad you’re so quick to forget,” she says.
“Why is that, Maggie? Tell me again.”
She coughs and continues her knitting. “We have to attend the hangings.”
Maggie and I sit on our front porch. She rocks in her rocker, knitting a scarf. I sit on a stool with my pipe in my hand. We drink ice tea as we watch the sunset.
The haze is heavier, and it is hard to make out colors. It traps the heat so we sweat a great deal. Maggie always corrects me when I complain about our sweating. She says, “Poppy, women don’t sweat, they glow. How many times must I remind you?”
Maggie likes to remind me of things. Sometimes, I pretend to forget so that Maggie can remind me. I don’t know what I would do without Maggie.
I am smoking my last pouch of Captain Black tobacco. Maggie is glad that I will soon be out of Captain Black tobacco. She says it smells like dead roaches.
“Would you rather it smelled like live roaches?” I ask. I take another puff.
Maggie titters and keeps on knitting. “Poppy,” she says, “you can still make me laugh.”
“I’m glad I still make you laugh,” I say.
She frowns like a judge. “I do wish you’d stop it. Laughing is illegal now.”
I’m glad that Maggie reminds me of this. Sometimes, I forget that laughing can get you hanged.
The hangings take place every day now. In hundreds of towns across the country, turncoats are strung up in droves. They do not laugh when the nooses are put around their necks. They stand like statues and wait for the ropes to tighten.
I am glad that the hangings take place every day. Maggie no longer has to remind me on what days the hangings are scheduled.
We attend the hangings six days a week. We no longer attend the hangings on Wednesday. On Wednesdays, we stay home and watch Laverne and Shirley. It is risky not to attend the hangings, but we like to watch Laverne and Shirley. We do not watch Happy Days anymore. Maggie does not like the Jewish boy. She says it is scandalous to watch a show that has a Jewish boy in it.
We don’t watch television as much as we used to. We watch the televised speeches, we also watch the marches, but we don’t watch the football or the porn. Most of the time, the television watches us.
He promised to stop the bombings, but bombings have increased. Buildings are bombed all over the country every single day. Still, he appears on television each night and says he will stop the bombings. Some say he orders the bombings himself. It is not funny to joke about the bombings.
Maggie is knitting a bright red scarf. She no longer knits in blue. He told us that traitors wear blue. He says the bombers wear blue. He says you cannot hide from him if you ever dressed in blue. I remember when Maggie knitted in blue, but she likes to correct me about this. She says blue is worn only by murderers, and she never knitted in blue.
I suspect they will hang me today. They arrested me several weeks ago and then they let me go. That was because I turned in Doctor Beckman—I told them he was a writer. That gave me a few more evenings with Maggie. I like to spend time with Maggie. But they always come back and hang you after they let you go. This happens within a month.
I look at Maggie. I think I will miss her even though she gets on my nerves. “Today is the day,” I tell her. “We may as well say goodbye.”
“We’ve been saying goodbye for years,” Maggie says. “One more time won’t make any difference.”
“Does that mean you won’t come to my hanging?” I say.
Maggie rolls her eyes, so I know I am making her cross. “If they hang you on Wednesday—no,” she says. “I’ll miss Laverne and Shirley.”
I am glad that today is Monday. I don’t want her to miss Laverne and Shirley.
“If they hang me today, will you come?” I say. “I’ll buy you a frozen yogurt.”
Maggie does not look at me. She stares at her knitting instead.
“Poppy,” she says to me after a while, “you may as well save your money. In all the years we have been married, I’ve never liked frozen yogurt.”
I am surprised to hear that Maggie does not like frozen yogurt. Every Sunday, after church, I buy her a frozen yogurt. I also buy her a frozen yogurt on the days we attend the hangings. What else don’t I know about Maggie?
I speak to her gently—I don’t want her upset. Not on the day of my hanging. “Why did you tell me you liked frozen yogurt?”
“Why did you believe me, Poppy?”
A van is parking in front of our house. Men are sitting in the van. It should be no more than an hour until the rope bites into my neck.
“Do you remember when we went to Hawaii?” I ask.
“That was fifty-five years ago, Poppy.”
“It seems like yesterday, doesn’t it Maggie?”
Maggie groans and puts down her knitting. “You don’t remember yesterday, Poppy. You only remember Hawaii.”
“I remember you liked the waterfalls, but not the dormant volcanoes.”
“No,” Maggie says. She rubs her eyes. “I did not like the dormant volcanoes.”
“Would you rather the volcanoes were active?” I ask.
She chuckles and picks up her knitting. “Poppy,” she says, “you still make me laugh.”
“I’m sorry,” I reply.
I hear the van doors slam. Men are walking towards our house. I can practically trace out my name in the haze, and they look like a mirage.
“They’re here, Maggie.”
She keeps on knitting. Her eyes do not stray from the scarf. “Are they wearing red or blue?” she asks. The needles leap in her hands.
I look at the men, but I don’t answer Maggie. I can’t tell what color they’re wearing.
A week ago, they hanged Poppy. And I did attend that man’s hanging. My, what a fuss he made. Standing beside the gallows, he begged the hangman to wait. All so he could hand me a dollar to buy myself a frozen yogurt. Poppy believed every problem in the world could be solved with a frozen yogurt. Not that his hanging was much of a problem. He dropped like a sack of potatoes, and his neck snapped like a whip.
Why on earth did I go to his hanging? Was I really hoping for closure? I still feel his absence when I sit alone on our porch. But I felt his absence when he was alive, so it’s really not much of a change.
He comes to me in my dreams, you know—my, what a tiresome man. He used to snore like a trumpet, which kept me awake half the night, and now he has the temerity to bother me in my dreams. I truly wish he would just move on and let me enjoy my sleep. Doesn’t he have anything better to do than to come around pestering me? No, he probably doesn’t—that man did like our bed.
I go to the hangings alone now, and I’m finding them rather tiresome. Do you know they’re hanging women and children? First, they hang the women and then they do the children. The women grow rigid the instant they’re hanged; the children squirm like eels. That’s because children are lighter, and it’s harder to break their necks. Their little legs pummel the air as though they’re riding invisible bikes.
He appeared on television last night to explain why he’s hanging the children. He said the children come from bad seed. He said if the children are not eliminated, they will grow up to bomb our cities. He explained that he hangs the mothers first so they won’t see their children swing. I’m glad he’s such a thoughtful man. I’m glad he’s destroying bad seed.
The smog has grown much thicker; I can no longer see the sunsets. But it’s bad for your eyes to look into the sun so that’s probably for the best. Poppy often gazed at the sunsets, and it’s a wonder he didn’t go blind. I do think he lost his sense of smell though—his tobacco stank like dead roaches. “Would you rather it stank like live roaches?” he asked me the day they took him away. Up until the moment they hanged him, that man could make me laugh.
I sit on our porch, hand-stitching a sunset quilt, and it’s hard on my arthritic fingers. The quilt has yellow, red, and blue so I use three colors of yarn. I no longer knit shawls and scarves with blue yarn, but I still stitch blue into my quilts. A sunset wouldn’t look authentic without a bit of blue.
The patrols are much more frequent now. Black vans, the kind they took Poppy away in, glide up and down our street. They took away Gertrude Edelman and ten-year-old Aaron, her son. They took away Precious Jackson; they took away Marquis Jones. They did not take away Margaret Sullivan; she came to see me yesterday. She said she admired my quilt. She said blue is a telling color. That’s high praise coming from Margaret, she’s the prefect of our block.
Any day, they will hang me for putting blue into my quilt. So I always have my makeup kit on me and I always wear freshly-ironed dresses. Before they hang me, they just might allow me to freshen up my face. A dab of rouge would look nice on my cheeks when the color drains away. I must ask Margaret to speak to the hangman before he stretches my neck. It would be very disrespectful if I did not leave a pretty corpse.
He appeared on television yesterday, interrupting Laverne and Shirley. It was one of my favorite episodes, the one where the girls have a séance to get rid of a household ghost. He told us it’s his painful duty to hang the Boy Scouts too. He said the Boy Scouts are planting bombs. He promised the bombings will stop once the Boy Scouts are hanged.
I do believe his speeches have awoken the trollop in me. Yesterday, when I heard his brave words, my nipples grew harder than bullets. That’s a fine howdy-do for a woman near eighty who stopped menstruating decades ago. If they’re going to hang me for impure thoughts, I hope they do it quickly.
I pray there is no afterlife; I don’t want my thoughts to go on. And I certainly don’t want to meet the souls of traitors and murderers. Imagine spending eternity hearing their wretched laments. No, I don’t want to go to an afterlife; I might be compromised there.
The quilt is nearly completed. A bit more blaze in the yellow, some ripple in the red, a tad more nuance in the blue, and I think it will be done. I rather wish Poppy were here to see it before I put it away. But Poppy liked everything I stitched so his compliments didn’t mean much. My god, I hope there is no world to come; I don’t want him back in my hair.
I stitch a little faster as the van pulls into our driveway. I do not look up as I hear the doors slam. I do not watch the men as they tromp to the house. I do not even offer them a glass of ice tea when they’re standing on the porch. I pluck a loose thread and I keep on stitching. “Wait ’til I’m finished,” I say.
“The Hangings” was originally published in A Lonely Riot and Literally Stories. It is also included in James’s anthology: Shackles and More Gripping Tales.
James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon.