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Jane Armstrong

Ice Cream Cake

As the sister of the victim, Lorraine was invited to attend the execution. She'd waited through eleven years of investigations, trials, and appeals, but when she got the call, she declined, choosing instead to stay home and organize her linen closet. The damask napkins, some from her mother and more later from Emily, had been wadded for years together in a drawer. Lorraine spent the day sorting them by size and style, then laundering, starching, pressing, and folding them. She replaced the napkins in the drawer in neat little stacks.

She read about the execution the next day in the newspaper. At 8:57 p.m. CT, the U.S. Supreme Court denied an application for a stay from Edward Martin Bruer, 37. He was served his final meal at 2 p.m. His choices: 8-ounce hickory smoked beef sausage, Cracker Barrel cheese, Wendy's double cheeseburger with pickles, onions, lettuce and mayonnaise, french fries and ketchup, a kosher pickle, a Vidalia onion, Coke Classic and Breyer's Viennetta ice cream cake. He said "No" when asked for any last words. He was pronounced dead by lethal injection at 9:21 CT.

All that food. Lorraine scanned the list for clues, explanations, but all she saw was a rough palate, a powerful appetite, the simple necessity of predators. Could he have eaten it all? Perhaps gluttony was his revenge. Someone would have to clean the body.

Lorraine pondered Edward Martin Bruer's dessert choice. It was a new thing. She'd seen the commercials on TV. Tiny portions served in champagne-sherbet glasses, passed around a well-appointed table. Silver spoons pinging against crystal, the dinner guests wanting more. The voice-over: One slice is never enough. Bruer must have loved that.

Although it was late, close to 4 a.m. on the day after the execution, Lorraine drove to Albertson's and purchased a Viennetta.

She thought at first of making an occassion of the Viennetta, setting her table with a china plate, one of the good napkins and a dessert fork from the sterling flatware, flowers, like the ice cream cake party on TV, but tried instead to imagine Edward Martin Bruer's eating of the cake, the last part of his last meal. What kind of dishes do they have in prison? She doubted they were like those metal plates she'd seen in old black and white prisoner movies, bar-clangers. Would Bruer, preoccupied, even notice what his cake tasted like and how it was served or would he be hyperfocused, thinking, I am eating for the last time, this is the last spoon I'll hold in my hand.

That was one thing about her sister, Lorraine thought. Observe and learn, Emily'd say. Catch the note and trick, she'd say, taking her beloved Henry James much too seriously.

Lorraine was certain that Emily would have laughed at first, finding Edward Martin Bruer in her kitchen that night, his doughy, sweaty face lit by the one bulb shining from inside the open refrigerator. Emily always laughed at horrible things. The thrill of the real, she called it. Like the purplish slick of dried blood they'd seen on their father's black leather wallet when they'd been called to the police station to claim his belongings after the suicide. Emily held the wallet toward the fluorescent ceiling lights and rocked it in her palm, making the blood shimmer. "Look at that," she said, laughing, "how could it be so pretty?"

Lorraine could picture Emily's eyes, intense and engaged, watching every blow to her own chest and abdomen, trying to feel the sound, the swoosh and splat into her flesh, watching her own arms rising then falling away, repulsed. Emily wasn't one to decompensate. Her own murder would not have been lost on her.

Lorraine spooned into the vanilla swirls of the ice cream cake. She examined the bite before she tasted it, the alternating layers of vanilla and shards of chocolate shell, a repackaged childhood treat. She and Emily, little girls on their first outings alone, would walk the four blocks from home to the Campus Dairy Bar, their hands sweating with clutched dimes and quarters, and order a dipped cone to share. Emily would eat all the chocolate off the top, leaving the ice cream to Lorraine.

The spoon was cold against her teeth as the ice cream slid onto her tongue. Lorraine closed her eyes, swallowed, waited for a picture to form, waited for tears, nausea, horror, anything, but Emily's death had, over the years of waiting, begun to make sense to her, become well-worn and ordinary, as if the death had written itself back upon Emily's life, making all other endings impossible to contemplate.

Lorraine sliced into the cake by spoonfuls, enjoying its simple, familiar taste, eating until her forehead burned with cold.

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