"Dining for one?" He chuckled, while adjusting his bowtie with his "sausage fingers." That was his name in the yard. Sausage fingers, the prison chef. He had my order and I made sure it would be a meal for the ages, so to speak. They let me hand it to him personally since it would be my last meal here; or anywhere for that matter.
The last meal request, a rite of passage for death row inmates who had exhausted all of our appeals. The date was set for the "apparently not so cruel and unusual punishment."
I was innocent in fact, but in 1950 when the trial date was set I was guilty until proven guilty and that was a fact. Imagine 1946 a wealthy black man living the life dreams are made of. Until those dreams involve falling in love with a white woman whose father happens to be a Congressman from the great state of Missura. That's Missouri for those of you in other states who like to say it incorrectly.
In 1948 Perez V Sharp in California passed. In short; The court held that marriage is a fundamental right and that laws restricting that right must not be based solely on prejudice.
I married the love of my life Jane in '49 just one year after that ruling. It would be nineteen years (1967) later before Loving V Virginia would grant others the right to interracially marry.
We returned back home, April of '49, surprised to see a healthy heapin of press dummies spouting off that our marriage was a sin. That no negro would inherit anything from a white man's estate in Missura. Our refusal to end our relationship or at the very least have our marriage annulled must have turned the heads of some bad 'compney because on our one year Anniversary Jane was murdered in our home.
I returned home from a business trip in New York. Within minutes of finding her dead on the davenport the local police happened by to "give me one last chance to reconsider my position." Of course there was no 911 back then, most homes didn't even have a phone. I tried to revive her but it was too late. She was gone, I had been home for less than 15 minutes when they made the arrest.
To put a nice bow on top, after they pulled me out of the house they "discovered" another dead white woman in the bedroom. She just so happened to be the daughter of Jane's father's mistress. Ending his legacy (or so I thought) and framing me for the murder of not one, but two white women in 1950.
So there I am 1959 handing my meal request to that behemoth of a man "sausage fingers" and the list was something to behold.
When Jane and I were in California we had a burger from a place called McDonalds, so I requested one of those for starters. The rest of the list consisted of Steak and eggs, fried chicken, liver and onions, collard greens, a turkey leg, some sweet tea and a coke, and to finish it off I would have a chocolate cake and an apple pie with ice cream on top.
"Dining for ooooone?" I mocked back, looking into Jerry's eyes. I wanted so badly to smack the smug, sly smirk from his arrogant face as he adjusted the bowtie that clung to his fat neck.
But I didn't…
I knew that in twenty four hours I was a dead man, and this last meal was the only thing I had left to look forward to.
I looked back at the Warden who was standing behind me at the kitchen entrance. He gave Jerry a nodding approval.
"It's all set then Jerry. You have twelve hours to get it done. No funny business all right!" The warden shook my hand, and smiled pleasantly. I turned to walk away when Jerry spoke.
"So the negro gets his fried chicken, I'm surprised he didn't have watermelon on that list 'ey Warden Lewis."
In an instant the Warden was inside that kitchen, the steel door slammed shut. I could hear some yellin' going on but couldn't make out the words. I peered through the small grease smeared window and watched as the Warden pinned the fatman against the steel sink. I will never forget the look on his face, he actually gave a damn. This was no act, Warden Lewis was a blessin', when he walked out of that room sausage fingers was blubbering somethin' awful. You would have thought he was the one preparing to eat his last meal instead of just preparing it.
Warden Lewis walked out of that kitchen, tears streaming down his face. He placed his hand under my chin and lifted my head up high. "Joe,"
"Yes Warden," I answered.
"Joe, I don't want you to worry about sausage- eh Jerry in there, someday the world will change for the better you hear me son."
I heard him, but I had no idea what he meant. I figured he was just trying to make me feel better in my last twenty-four hours.
"I have a meeting to do some finalization on this whole ordeal. But don't you worry Joe it will all be over soon."
Easy for him to say. He would walk out of here in his polished leather shoes. While I would be carried out of here in a black zipper bag like a sack of rotted potatoes. He would sleep in a warm comfy bed. I would lie awake on a cold stone slab, waiting to eat my last meal while they prepared the chair that would send electricity coursing through my body.
"Wake up Joe." The Warden tapped me on the shoulder. "I have a request for you?"
Somehow I had managed to doze off in my cell. It was just thirty minutes until final meal time. I rubbed my eyes trying to make sense of it all. "Request?" I asked.
"There is someone who would like to partake in the final meal with you Joe."
"Is that allowed?" I asked, he smiled.
"The press will be all for it. Story will probably make the papers coast to coast. From the San Francisco Chronicle to the Denver Post all the way to Washington Post and New York Times."
I started to wonder if he was doing this for me or the publicity. Was I his ticket to greener pastures, Tens of thousands, maybe millions of dollars? What difference did it make to me? Most of the guards here referred to me as "dead man walking." Sitting with some media darling or political guru wasn't going to change anything for me.
"Request denied! No disrespec' Warden but I don't wanna be no pet project, no pedestal to prop up 'nother white man who don't give two shits 'bout me." I expected my back talk would earn me some time to myself and maybe even get the whole meal called off. I wasn't 'bout to be their gold ticket.
"Don't you want to know who wants to sit with ya Joe." He asked, direct and matter of factly.
"Unless it's President Eisenhower Just let me eat in peace then lead me to the chair sir." I was angry, my first two years here were horrible. Myself and the rest of the colorerd's were beaten and abused on a regular basis.
Then came Warden Lewis and all that changed, we began to be treated like human beings. Warden Lewis had always been a man of his word and never a political tool. So I reconsidered my position. I humbled myself in spite of my misgivings. "Okay Warden, I'll allow it."
"Great, it's settled then." As we approached the dining hall Jerry greeted me at the door. He handed me a white linen napkin and seated me in a luxurious chair. The fat bastard even managed a smile that looked sincere.
The press was there, top of the line cameras clicked and wound, while bursts of light; the likes of which I had never seen, illuminated the dim room. There was a chair across from my position I assumed for my special guest. The Warden stood behind me in his Sunday best as the room filled with press writers. He was right, every major paper in the country was there.
More importantly, each selection of food was beautifully arranged on the table under a beautiful silver cloche. The Coke and tea were in silver goblets in front of the first cloche which was positioned in front of me.
"So, Joe, are you ready to meet your special guest?" Full disclosure, I wasn't quite sure I was ready, or willing for that matter to talk to anyone else. Especially if it meant sharing the meal which would be my last.
"Bring him out!" Yelled the Warden. The press began to snap pictures as a door on the other side of the hall opened. Then he came into view and I couldn't believe my eyes. A man dressed to the nines in a grey suit with a red tie that hung perfectly to his polished brass belt buckle. I swallowed the lump in my throat as the Warden wiped away my tears with the linen napkin. It felt like I was a king if only for a moment. The special guest was Jane's father… Former Congressmen from the great state of Missura.
He strolled with swagger I had not witnessed before. The press parted like Moses was marchin' through the reed sea. He pulled out the chair on the other side of the table and sat down. Jerry handed him a linen napkin, bowed graciously and excited the room. Flash bulbs illuminated the room again.
"Let's leave these two fine gentlemen to their meal,'' said Warden Lewis. The press exited promptly. The door closed; there we sat, face to face, for the first time in nearly eight years.
In that meeting, eight long years ago he had promised me that he would find a way to get me out and clear his name in the process.
"Let's eat. I'm famished." he said, while lifting the lid from the cloche that was centered between us. It was not one, not two, but one dozen McDonalds Hamburgers.
I slammed the lid back down with an open hand strike. "That's all you have to say to me Forrest? Why are you here? I thought you cared for me, I thought you loved me!"
He ignored my sentiment and opened the cloche again. He picked up a burger and took a bite. He took another one and handed it to me. With a mouth full of meat and bread he spoke again. "Umm umm Joe, eat up, these things are delicious." He took another bite then set the burger down.
Reluctantly I took a bite of the burger and a small sip of Coke to wash it down. "So what's the big Idea Forrest, coming here today you got some nerve." I took another bite and chewed while talking. "I would have gave the world for Jane, only woman I ever loved 'cept my momma of course."
He pushed the silver platter of burgers to the side. "You know Jane told me all about your trip to California and your stop at that burger joint. That why you got these?" I took a sip of tea this time and washed down the mouthful I had.
"Sure is," I used the linen to wipe away another tear that had worked its way to my cheek. "God I miss her. Why didn't you come back for me Forrest. I been rotten away eight years waitin' to die. Only bright spots been Warden Lewis."
"Yeah he got here about two years into your stint if I recall."
"Hhh-How did you know?" I straightened up in my seat. He pulled the next cloche close to us. He opened it revealing a platter of crisply fried liver and onions, it smelled like heaven. He pushed it close to me.
"That ones all you Joe." He chuckled. "I can't believe that you had Jane cooking and eating that shit too, Joe man did she love you." I dug in and slurped down a big bite. "You 'ain't never lie Forrest, Jane was the best. And Jerry couldn't put a candle to her in the Kitchen Dad." There it was it slipped out like we were back at his house. Dad, Oh how I needed someone like him in my life. I was so nervous when I met him, a wealthy white Congressman, named Forrest nonetheless.
I'll never forget it because he lost a friend that night when Jane introduced me. Slim, as he was known, was the sitting Mayor of the small town. He thought I was Jane's driver, the SOB even tipped me a dollar. You should have seen the look on his face when Forrest embraced me in a hug.
"Son, if my daughter sees a future with you and trusts you then welcome to the family, Joe." Slims jaw pert near hit the ground.
"You gonna let your daughter date that Ni-"
Forrest cut in abruptly.
"Now slim you just mind your business if you know what's good for ya. Some folks 'round here might be glad to know what you've been doing with some of the city funds. Now just go on outta here. Before I do something we both regret."
It was amazing. No white man had ever took up for me like that. From that moment on my outlook changed. He showed me what good people could do and be.
Jane and I spent the next three years together before we married and life was amazing. She was scheduled to go to New York with me, the weekend of her murder but my mom fell ill so she stayed to take care of her.
During my trial I found out that one of the town officials had come to our home on the pretense of taking my mom to a hospital that would "serve her kind" Jane got her father involved.
That didn't sit well so they made up some story about an affair her father had been involved with. The woman that was found in the bedroom turned out to be some Vegas show girl that they paid a hefty sum of money for her services. They murdered her and Jane and planted a letter that claimed Forrest was her father. There was no DNA back then and the fingerprint database was shotty at best. Tracking a Vegas resident all the way to Missura was practically impossible.
The next two hours sitting in that dining hall almost made me forget about what was coming for me. Almost…
We tried one dish after another until all the platters had been uncloched. We cried, over memories of Jane and momma. He even told me the story of his wife (Jane's mom) and what happened to her. We finished the pie and ice cream that was brought in last then it was time to go.
Forrest stood up and waved the Warden back in. My heart sank, for those few hours I was human again. I was on the outside looking in. I felt reconnected to him and strangely felt Jane's presence in the room.
Forrest walked over to my side of the table and handed me a letter. It was handwritten from Jane. It was addressed to her father and it told him, in very certain terms, how much she loved me and that when she brought me over to meet him if he even said one undue negative word she would disown him and never talk to him again.
I stood up and he embraced me in a hug. The Warden spoke.
"You ready to go Joe." I was, I made peace with it all. I was finally ready, knowing that there was goodness and kindness in the world.
"There is one more thing, I have to tell you Joe." Said Forrest. "Remember the promise I made to you eight years ago?"
"Yes of course I do, it's oka-" he cut me off.
"Sorry that," he paused and took in a huge gulp of air. "I'm sorry that it took me so long to fulfill. You are looking at the Governor of the great state of Missura and you are hereby duly pardoned of all crimes and penalties that have been levied against you. You will walk out of here with me today to start your new life outside these walls."
Warden Lewis smiled and shook my hand. I pulled him close. He whispered in my ear. "Forrest was the reason I took over and Warden Smith had to go. He would not rest until he knew you were going to be okay. He said Jane would never forgive him if he didn't. So he ran for Governor twice and here we are." The rest of that moment, that day, was a blur as the press corp. rushed the room, some in frenzied disbelief and some greeting me with open arms.
Forrest would be murdered one year later on the anniversary of my release while trying to breakup a KKK rally protesting said unjust pardon.
I've eaten many meals in the years that passed since that fateful day. But that was truly one I will never forget. As far as the Warden Lewis, he retired the day after Forrest was murdered. He came to visit me on several occasions. He passed away in the summer of '99 if memory serves.
It's now 2022, I am ninety-four years old and wouldn't you know it, that little hamburger stand McDonalds is a household name. My wife and I own six of them in the St Louis area. My great granddaughter Jane will inherit them all when my time here is done.