A photojournalist observes life in rural Oklahoma while following the story of a local execution.
Cover photo: East of McCord, Oklahoma, 4:15pm, October 28th, 2021. All photos credit: B.A. Van Sise.
All the cars in the parking lot are cars from here.
There is beauty in America, rarely more so than here, or at least the way to here, through the Oklahoma background of rolling hills and painting-perfect cattle and grass. So much grass. All the grasses have names: little bluestem, big bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass. They undulate across endless fields, the nation’s true and unregarded flag waving in the breeze. The lakes that pockmark the entire state are new, built after the Dust Bowl to prevent it from returning. The grass, while it may not be here after us, was certainly here long before: it, and the breeze to caress it, are the only witnesses here to the time before human voice, before the arrival of language on the plains and forty millennia of two-legged locusts.
Right now, we’re in Madill. I’m here working on a long-term project for an exhibition nobody will see for years, though really I’m just passing through here more than actually here. It’s been a transitory time: it’s a six hour flight, and another six hour flight, and between them thirteen hundred miles of driving in constant rain. That’s the week. That’s the job.
There’s five photo shoots to put together, and Madill’s on the way to Fort Washita, and Fort Washita’s on the way to Norman, and Norman’s on the way to Ponca City, which is on the way to Pawhuska, on the way to Miami, on the way to the airport back to home.
We’ve—me and you—just come off the highway, the big interstate that connects wherever you don’t want to be with Dallas, further south, though we’ve hopped off. Route 70 meanders down from the six-lane to slumber past a couple cemeteries, a creek, a welding shop, a few country stores, and the invisible town of Antioch, named for the ancient biblical city which also can no longer be seen. Finally, the road wends its way towards Madill, past a store to buy guns, and another store to buy guns, and another store to buy guns: an oasis for the second amendment, right here in the arms of Lake Texoma.
It’s a small place, with a little square containing the town hall, the newspaper office, roughly seven million American flags, and the dull hum of mediocrity for which so many people get nostalgic. If you forced a bot to watch 1,000 hours of life in Madill, it would spit out a country song, or maybe the plot of an eleven minute internet video involving its stepsister.
Early for the shoot in Fort Washita, I’ve stopped for lunch, to catch a bite in Madill and read the newspaper that was waiting in front of my hotel room’s door this morning. The small parking lot is as cramped as a rich man’s icebox; the town’s population is 3,770, and they’re all here, wide and slowly moving, at Hobo Joe’s restaurant. There’s pickup trucks, sedans, SUVs, and three police cruisers spread over the border of the lot and onto the sidewalk adjacent.
Now, it is important, vitally important, to the proprietors of Hobo Joe’s that you know you might be murdered there at any minute. In the anteroom to the restaurant, one photocopied leaflet advertises a concealed carry class for those locals who might like to indiscreetly bring their pistol to church or bingo; it’s next to a hard plastic, mass produced sign reading “NOTICE: THIS PLACE IS POLITICALLY INCORRECT. WE SAY MERRY CHRISTMAS, ONE NATION UNDER GOD, WE SALUTE THE FLAG & GIVE THANKS TO OUR TROOPS. IF THIS OFFENDS YOU, LEAVE.” In other words, if you’re an atheist or a Jew, and not feeling very jingoistic, we’d also recommend you avoid that church, and that bingo is not for you, either.
A nice young waitress who’s had no more than 15 birthdays offers me sweet tea and shows me to my booth, which has another hard plastic sign: NOTICE: FIREARMS WELCOME. PLEASE KEEP ALL WEAPONS HOLSTERED UNLESS NEED ARISES. IN SUCH A CASE, JUDICIOUS MARKSMANSHIP IS APPRECIATED. One lingers on the word appreciated and wonders about the choice: not necessary. Not required.
My mind imagines the crime scene investigators standing over my lifeless body when the detective shows up. “Well, boys,” he’d say, “what happened here?” The investigator would take a long drag off his cigarette. “Sergeant, I don’t believe this man was appreciated.”
Last night, I slept in room 412, and woke up with a copy of The Seminole Producer, a local newspaper, waiting under my front door. I unfold it as I wait for the waitress to bring a menu. The main headline for the day: Oklahoma to Resume Executions Thursday. The secondary headline, just as large but without the boldface: Local Festival includes Cherokee National Treasure. One almost expects it might almost have been “Parade Planned for Thursday Afternoon.”
It’s a big story: nobody’s been executed in the Sooner State for six years, after two consecutive botched executions briefly soured the public taste for the idea. Their palate refreshed, they’ll now return to it. The article is matter-of-fact: a very bad man named John Marion Grant is currently a guest of the Oklahoma penal system. He deserves to die. Tomorrow, he will. In other news, there’s going to be a festival, and the Cherokee are providing treasure: not an artifact, but a man. This article is also matter-of-fact: he’s a very talented man named Noel Grayson. He makes beautiful bows and arrows. He deserves to live.
He is appreciated.
I’m brought my menu and then my food: a BLT with one thin strip of lettuce, two slices of tomato so fine they must have been carved off the fruit with a razor, and six slices of bacon. The man at the table next to me is having chicken fried steak with macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, and a 48-ounce glass of Coca-Cola. He is wearing a hat that says “Make America Great Again” that is made in China.
I pay at the register, where the young lady rings me up under a sweatshirt, for sale, that says TRUMP 2024. I head back out into the rain.
Oklahoma has two and a half seasons: a hot, dry summer, a cold, wet winter, with a two week period between them when everything is in bloom and cowboys break into song. Today is October 27th, and it’s raining. In fact, it’s rained every moment from my airplane’s landing, and will rain almost every moment until I leave. There’s been diagonal rain and up-and-down rain and driving rain, light drizzles and heavy downpours that turn every ungrassed inch of the land into mud.
Making my way to Fort Washita, the radio is tuned to KCNP, Chickasaw Community Radio, where the DJ plays mostly country-pop music, but, for the moment, he’s discussing tomorrow’s execution. He relays in grim detail the story of how John Marion Grant once assisted a prison employee off the mortal coil—he stabbed his cafeteria supervisor sixteen times. The DJ invites listeners to call in about the next day’s frivolities.
“We’ll kill a man in the morning,” he says. “Listeners, let us know what you think.”
If anyone phones the station, their thoughts never make it to air; their voices never arrive across the plains.
The state of Oklahoma does not execute John Marion Grant in the morning; his appointment with fate, due to some last minute appeals and their failures, is postponed until 4 o’clock in the afternoon. It is still raining at dawn in Ponca City, where industrial facilities rise up off the flat landscape like a colorless Oz, and for most of the day radio announcers breathlessly relate the oncoming news of the execution: a federal lawsuit has argued that the three-drug method to be used on Grant risks causing unconstitutional pain and suffering. His attorneys also allege that his sentence has failed to take into account that he, too, was also somehow a victim, as he’d developed feelings for the woman, who he’d worked for before she fired him, which was his motivation to murder her in a mop closet. The clemency board has recommended his sentence be commuted; the governor has ignored them.
Oklahoma is beautiful, even in the rain: yes, a little boring, but there’s jewels in the saddlebag if you’re willing to ride. In the ghost town of Ralston, living Oklahomans still cohabitate with their spectres, as the post office remains open and the occasional Ford truck zooms by abandoned storefronts for lunch counters and turn-of-the-century cigar shops. In Pawhuska, street signage is in the Osage language, spoken by only a handful of people who, in an alphabet only recently invented, are told just when and where to yield.
Oklahoma’s death chamber was the nation’s most active until the business went off the rails six years ago: in April 2014, an inmate was administered the wrong drug and took 43 minutes to die. In January 2015, another was given the same incorrect injection, and it went only slightly better. It led to a de facto moratorium on the process. It’s been raining all day, again, but John Marion Grant probably doesn’t have windows in the room where, a bit after 3pm, he’s strapped to a gurney. The radio announcer comes on after a Carrie Underwood song to let his listeners know, but fails to mention the most important facts of what’s occurring in that faraway, windowless cell: does Mr. Grant say Merry Christmas? Does he say one nation under God? Does he salute the flag? Does he give thanks to the troops? Does he offend us? Must he leave?
He launches into an endless stream of unrepeatable and unprintable profanity when the intravenous leads are inserted into his arm.
In Pawhuska, the Buckin’ Pawn Shop’s window features a native man holding on to a desperate, flailing horse, and promises their specialties: cash loans for rodeo entry fees, beer money, gamblin’ money, bill and bail money. There’s an oil well right in the middle of the street in quaint nearby Barnsdall, Oklahoma, where time kept moving but the town stayed behind to mind the store. Signs tell you proudly that the town was the home of anti-gay rights activist Anita Bryant, and halitotic actor Clark Gable, who wasn’t born here, didn’t die here, stayed here only a short time and left as soon as he could. Cars have to swerve around that oil well to get to the pizzeria, which is closed, or the funeral home, which isn’t.
The rain pours, an ocean through a sieve, though the dark clouds have grown silver linings, kissed on the nape by a hiding sun. An endless road stretches out to the horizon, without hint of a house, or a cow, or the cowboy to tend either of them. The radio announcer is narrating a report of the execution in real time, and I pull over on the side of the road to listen to it. A few hundred meters ahead, a police car has pulled over alone to the same switchgrass curb, his roof warning lights rotating silently, surely listening to the same.
When the curtain opens in the chamber, Grant is strapped to a gurney with restraints visible on his arm and chest, a white sheet covering his body below the breast. There are IVs in both arms. When the drugs are administered, John Marion Grant does not fall asleep, as he is supposed to do: that’s his week. That’s his job. Instead, he stays awake, and begins to convulse violently, jerking harshly against the leather straps holding him down. He begins to froth at the mouth, and prison workers periodically enter to wipe his face and maw. He continues cursing, until finally he begins to vomit, sputtering and choking on the upended contents of his belly. Guards return to clean Mr. Grant’s last bout of indigestion.
In Tulsa, if you’re ever there, be sure not to miss the State Fair: it comes every October and invariably marks the changing of the seasons: over the course of the two-week festival, the mercury will drop thirty degrees and the long, sunny days of late summer will cede to the shorter, rainy ones of the current season. You can get deep-fried Twinkies, pickle pizzas, and caramel apple pie bombs, and there are huge carnival rides that draw massive crowds from across the state. They’ve had it for generations: there’s teenagers in love, grandfathers with their granddaughters, and the whole thing takes place on the expansive fairgrounds under the watchful eye of the Golden Driller, a 75-foot statue of a yellow, square-jawed man with a firm grip on a real oil derrick brought in from Seminole, Oklahoma, a town known far and wide for its hotel floor newspaper. The entire scene is so wholesome it’ll make your teeth ache. They’ve also got pineapple ice cream served in the actual pineapple shell, grilled cheese doughnuts, and I can personally recommend the macaroni and cheese bacon empanadas.
Initially, following the last two botched executions, the state moved forward with plans to switch to nitrogen gas, which would turn condemned Oklahomans’ last moments into naught more than a slightly more stressful trip to the dentist: a plastic mask would be put over their nose and mouth, and they’d slowly fade into an eternity of dreamless sleep. Instead, last year the state announced that it planned to resume executions using the same three-drug lethal injection protocol that had been used the last two times it had gone terribly wrong: midazolam, a sedative, followed by vecuronium bromide, a paralytic, and then potassium chloride, which stops the heart.
Bubbles are coming out of Mr. Grant’s mouth, and I’m watching the empty road, the police cruiser parked far ahead of me, when the rain finally relents for a moment. The road becomes almost immediately dry, to the eye, in spite of two straight days of rain. A small band of white, illuminated clouds begin to jog under the plateau of dark, eerily yellow ones, on their way to some more pressing engagement. I look behind me to make sure nobody is coming—nobody is—and step out into the road to photograph the same sky that I’ve seen every day of my life, only slightly different. It is beautiful, this one nation under God. It takes Mr. Grant 15 minutes to fall unconscious, and he’s uncomfortable for each and every one of them. Six minutes pass before a doctor declares him dead; he falls asleep just after I step out of the car, and dies just before I step back into it. A car passes. It is a car from here.
The radio announcer, a few minutes later, comes back on to tell us Mr. Grant has died. I watch the police cruiser pull off the curb and begin driving off into the distance. “Just in,” the announcer says, “news out of McAlester that John Marion Grant’s sentence has been completed, and he has died at the age of 60. Reporters on scene say that his last words were let’s go.”