The Last Suppers

The Last Suppers

by Mandy Mikulencak

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Overview

The Last Suppers by Mandy Mikulencak

Set in 1950s Louisiana, Mandy Mikulencak’s beautifully written and emotionally moving novel evokes both The Help and Dead Man Walking with the story of an unforgettable woman whose quest to provide meals for death row prisoners leads her into the secrets of her own past.
 
Many children have grown up in the shadow of Louisiana’s Greenmount State Penitentiary. Most of them—sons and daughters of corrections officers and staff—left as soon as they could. Yet Ginny Polk chose to come back to work as a prison cook. She knows the harsh reality of life within those walls—the cries of men being beaten, the lines of shuffling inmates chained together. Yet she has never seen them as monsters, not even those sentenced to execution. That’s why Ginny has taken on a special responsibility: preparing their last meals.
 
Pot roast or red beans and rice, coconut cake or pork neck stew . . . whatever the men ask for Ginny prepares, even meeting with their heartbroken relatives to get each recipe just right. The prison board frowns upon the ritual, as does Roscoe Simms, Greenmount’s Warden. Her daddy’s best friend before he was murdered, Roscoe has always watched out for Ginny, and their friendship has evolved into something deep and unexpected. But when Ginny stumbles upon information about the man executed for killing her father, it leads to a series of dark and painful revelations. Truth, justice, mercy—none of these are as simple as Ginny once believed. And the most shocking crimes may not be the ones committed out of anger or greed, but the sacrifices we make for love.
 
“A haunting study of race relations, compassion, and mystery. A must read.”
—Library Journal (Starred Review)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496710031
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 12/26/2017
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 316,784
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Mandy Mikulencak has been a writer her entire working life. First, as a journalist then as an editor and PR specialist for two national nonprofits and a United Nations agency. Today she lives in the mountains of Southwest Colorado with her husband, Andy. She writes YA and adult fiction. Her first book, Burn Girl, has been honored with a 2016 Westchester Fiction Award. Readers can visit her website at www.mandymikulencak.com

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Ginny crawled beneath Roscoe's threadbare wool blanket, not caring that the fibers scratched at her bare skin. She'd come to lay with him, as she typically did after the weekday workers returned home or to their barracks and the weekend guards took their posts. The musky scent of Old Spice clung to his pillow. She pressed her face deep into the fabric, breathing in the memories of him that lingered there.

Tonight, he was in the bath, which was also typical right before their visits. He'd once said that the stench of desperation and violence clung to him at the end of the day and he feared it'd rub off on her. Ginny had reminded him that she, too, worked at the prison. To which he shook his head and replied, "The kitchen don't count, Ginny. The kitchen don't goddamn count."

She let Roscoe believe the lie because he needed to think she was immune to the savagery in men's thoughts and actions. But savages existed on both sides of the metal bars, a truth everyone at the prison understood.

The rhythmic sloshing of water between the tub and Roscoe's body would have lulled Ginny to sleep if it weren't for the tiny spasms in her lower back and legs shouting for attention. It had been another thirteen-hour day with only a short break for stale coffee around 2 p.m. If she didn't get out of bed, Roscoe might not be able to rouse her.

She stood before his dresser and eased open the top drawer. It wasn't the first time she investigated its contents, but there were no secrets between them. The act of snooping reminded her of the times she had snuck into her parents' bedroom and investigated their personal belongings. During those foolhardy moments, she held her breath until she almost became dizzy with excitement. Back then, the price of being found out had been her mother's hellfire temper and the bite of a metal belt buckle against her bare legs. No such reproach would come from Roscoe.

He'd added nothing new since the last time she looked. The mainstays were still there: a bottle of whiskey, a small white prayer book that had been his mother's, a change of underwear, and a half-empty carton of cigarettes left over from when he'd quit smoking. The last thing a person should do is lock up his demons in a place he could access at any time, but that was Roscoe. He had impulse control.

As soon as he stepped out of the bath, she closed the drawer quietly and slipped back into bed. He entered the room, naked except for a small St. Christopher's medal he wore around his neck. Other lawmen swore by their St. Michael's medals. Roscoe never said why he chose St. Christopher, but wearing the patron saint of travelers next to his heart made sense to her. A person's road in this lifetime was perilous enough. A bit of luck might just extend the journey by a few years.

The metal springs shuddered when he sat down on the edge of the bed. His skin, bright red from hot water and scrubbing, radiated warmth. She leaned closer and breathed in the scent of Ivory soap. The smells of the kitchen clung to her own skin and hair — onions, greens, hot grease, perspiration, and industrial dish soap. It crossed her mind to bathe before she met him in his room, but sheer fatigue kept her from worrying about it too much.

"Tough day?" he asked.

She kissed the small of his back before he nudged her to the other side of the bed.

"No so bad. You?"

"Nothing out of the ordinary," he said.

Neither expected a truthful or detailed answer. They always kept their talking to the bare minimum until after — when the lights were out and truth came more easily, like a confessional before the priest opened the curtain for absolution. Still, Roscoe shared only a fraction of what troubled his mind. His darkness played out in nightmares he seemed mostly ashamed of and almost never talked about. The nights they both wrestled with nightmares, they took turns waking the other up with their thrashing and muffled cries.

Ginny rolled on top of Roscoe and let his skin warm her from chest to toes. Aligning their bodies made her feel like they were one entity and that their cells could be merged by the heat and sweat between them. Her mind sometimes went off in odd directions, wondering, for example, if they'd start breathing in unison if they stayed still enough. Or whether a couple could stay completely entwined a whole night without needing to pull away.

His stubbly chin was always a pleasant sensation against her smooth one. She moved back and forth, feeling its roughness. He turned slightly so their lips touched, but only for a moment.

"Enough of that now," he said, rolling her onto her back.

The bedsprings sang for a few minutes while she watched two moths dance in the lamp shade on the nightstand.

*
Roscoe go9781496710031t out of bed and pulled on the boxers he'd draped over the chair back. His arms and long legs were taut and sinewy, but his belly spilled over the elastic waistband, a juxtaposition Ginny didn't find unattractive. At age fifty, he was more than twenty years her senior and exhibited more vigor than she ever had. She found this strange considering how closely he was tied to the death of others.

He walked to the small dresser and removed a bottle from the top drawer. "Drop of hooch?"

"Sure. A finger is all, though." She sat up, tucking the blanket beneath her armpits.

He handed her a juice glass half-full of whiskey, then poured his own more substantial portion. He set the bottle on the nightstand before he lay back against the wrought-iron headboard. His quarters in the administrative building contained only this sorry bed, a mismatched nightstand and dresser, and a small wooden table with two ladder-back chairs. His clothes hung from nails pounded in the window trim. He rarely stayed in the warden's residence, a three-bedroom, freshly painted, white clapboard house at the far end of the compound. It had a formal dining room and a fully stocked kitchen Ginny envied. He said it was too far from the main prison buildings, that he needed to be closer to "the men." She didn't know if Roscoe meant his guards or the inmates, or both.

It was clear from his face that something troubled him. She traced his forehead with her finger, stopping to smooth the deep lines etched between his brows.

"You sure nothing's wrong?" she asked.

"Just the normal stuff." He took a generous sip of his whiskey.

"Nothing you want to talk about?"

"Nope." He downed the rest of his drink and cradled the empty glass.

Ginny stared at her still-untouched drink. She didn't like the taste of alcohol or how it made her feel, but it seemed more trouble to refuse a taste when Roscoe was drinking. She often thought she'd turn to booze for comfort if she had to witness one tenth of what Roscoe witnessed each day. Even though he refused to talk about it, she'd already heard through the prison grapevine that two men were killed in the fields earlier that day at the hands of Roscoe's guards. Men of questionable nature were attracted to the jobs at Greenmount, and it gave her pause to think even Roscoe couldn't keep their aggression in check.

"There's no more money for the prison larder this month," he said, steering her away from any other questions about his mood.

She never asked for a penny more than was allotted, but he seemed to need to apologize for this thing beyond his control.

"I always make do."

"You could make a meal fit for a king out of spoiled milk, rotten eggs, and flour," he continued. It was one of those compliments he overused, both with her and anyone else he talked to about her cooking.

"Good thing we don't have to find out," she always replied.

It was 1959 and she'd been the lead cook at Greenmount Penitentiary for eight years — the first woman to be allowed on staff. The last warden didn't care if meals were punishment in and of themselves. Said only filth was good enough for filth. She felt her hiring had less to do with her culinary skills and more to do with the Department of Corrections wanting bad press to go away. Just months before Ginny was hired, several inmates cut their Achilles tendons to protest conditions at the prison, including the slop they were fed. Reforms that followed included more staff, better food, and slightly more sanitary living conditions. Roscoe was promoted to warden the same year and had been the one to hire her. She suspected it was a job he wished he hadn't taken, but he never admitted it out loud.

"Goddamned prison board won't leave well enough alone." His voice was tired and low, as if the flu was coming on. "The superintendent and a couple of members are driving up soon."

"It's not near time for their quarterly visit," she said. "What do they want?"

"What do they ever want?"

The superintendent's chief complaint — besides Roscoe taking reform a little too seriously — was he failed to kiss anyone's ass, which was mandatory in the Louisiana penal system.

The visits made Roscoe itch with worry, which he never showed to his men. The cues were apparent to Ginny, though. He'd chew the skin of his thumb raw and say he was more tired than usual. Another person might be on edge, snapping and grousing, but he did the opposite, retreating into himself. Ginny sometimes felt ashamed for savoring these quiet moods. Still, she worried that the unplanned board visit signaled bad news.

Roscoe reached into the drawer of the nightstand and removed his well-worn Bible. He'd dog-eared almost every page. She wondered how he remembered which pages held significance, unless all of them had at one time or another.

Even though she doubted God's existence, she liked a good story, and the Bible had quite a few of those. She and Roscoe disagreed on whether the work was an excellent piece of fiction or words coming straight from God's mouth. He respected her beliefs — or lack thereof — but said he wouldn't hide his own. She'd never ask such a thing of anyone, much less Roscoe. Her longing for answers didn't mean he hadn't already found his.

"Don't want to talk about work anymore. Want me to read aloud?" he asked.

Ginny always said yes because she loved the power in his voice. He could've been a preacher, the sort who didn't keep people in line with words of fear and shame, but whose voice made the congregation believe he could protect them from Old Scratch himself. That same voice probably commanded more respect from the staff and inmates than anything else about him.

"New Testament or Old?" He put a cigarette in his mouth but didn't light it. During those times he tried to quit, he'd say it helped to have the thing between his lips, even if he couldn't take a draw.

"You pick." She closed her eyes and listened as he started from page one. "In the beginning ..."

She tried to imagine if they'd be sharing a bed if they didn't work at the prison together, or if he hadn't been her daddy's best friend before he was murdered.

CHAPTER 2

Ginny followed Roscoe down the hallway of the admin building, although several steps behind because the jackass was on some kind of foot race. He wouldn't turn around, so she spoke to his back. "What do you mean, he won't talk to me? Why the hell not?"

His pace quickened and she struggled to keep up. "Roscoe! Please answer me."

He whipped around on her so fast she almost ran into his chest. "It's Warden Simms unless we're alone. You know that, Ginny."

He towered above her, hands clenched. It wasn't yet 6 a.m. and perspiration soaked through his T-shirt to his uniform. He smelled of chewing tobacco, not Ivory soap as he had the night before, but the scent was just as comforting.

"No one's around to hear," she whispered. "This is important, Roscoe. I have to see him."

The anger drained from his face. He was back to being plain frustrated by the requests she made of him all these years.

"The boy has only days before he meets his Maker and you want to ask him about his favorite foods. He said he doesn't want anything."

"He doesn't know what he wants." She tested Roscoe's patience almost subconsciously. When he failed to give her reason not to, it had only become easier over the years.

"Ginny, let it alone."

Her fingers brushed against his for a second. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and stepped away.

"I can't let it alone," she said.

This wasn't pigheadedness on her part. It was something physical that wouldn't let go. Planning the meals plagued her thoughts and brought on headaches and stomach pains. Ignoring them wasn't an option. She had tried on occasion in the early days.

Truth be told, Roscoe was partly to blame for her fervor. He'd said yes the first time she asked to prepare something special for an inmate's last meal and had agreed another sixteen times in eight years.

"Don't you see how it affects you?" he asked. "You stayed in bed for three days after the last execution. It's wearing on you, girl. You just won't admit it."

Ginny ignored Roscoe's reasoning. She'd just been tired, dog-tired. The execution had nothing to do with it.

"Jesus Christ. If the Superintendent of Corrections knew, I'd be out of a job," he continued. "Then where'd I be? There's already too many folks nosying around."

She wanted to press her face against his chest and hug away his worry, more for herself than for him.

"We could marry and move to Alabama. I'd have seven kids and you'd sell vacuum cleaners door-to-door." She was only half joking.

He looked up and down the hallway, the furrows easing from his brow. "Ain't nobody want to live in goddamn Alabama."

She leaned in and pecked him on the cheek tentatively. "Ask him again, Roscoe. Please?"

As she ran down the hall, the haunting urgency that came with each execution nipped at her heels.

*
Dot was elbow deep in flour by the time Ginny reached the kitchen. The old woman's scowl indicated Ginny was in trouble even though she was technically the kitchen supervisor.

"It's 'bout time you showed up," Dot mumbled. Unable to keep up the pretense of anger, her scowl lifted into a grin.

Ginny pulled an apron off the hook near the door. "I guess those sheet pans greased themselves this morning, huh?"

"Well, if you were already here, where'd you run off to?" She put her hands on her ample hips, sending flour onto the cement floor.

A guard arrived with two inmates who ignored the bickering women and got to the business of peeling potatoes. Jess and Peabody were several moons past seventy, their faces like shriveled apples. Their failing health kept them from being useful in the fields. They would have worked in the license plate operation or at the canning plant, but Ginny recruited them. Two guards stood watch over the kitchen because Dot and Ginny were the only women allowed in that part of the prison compound. One guard paid special attention to Jess and Peabody, as if they posed a danger, but Ginny wasn't afraid. Their crimes were unknown to her, but the men exuded gentleness, or maybe just plain resignation.

"You with your boyfriend, huh?" Dot loaded the trays with biscuit rounds, not looking up.

Ginny ignored her and started the gelatinous gravy her daddy had called Shit on a Shingle. It seemed the best use of the prison's ration of fatty ground beef because it could be stretched by adding a roux of flour, milk, and beef broth. Enough black pepper and she could get away with using milk on the edge of sour. She usually served it on plain white bread, but biscuits were cheap to make and the men appreciated it.

"Not talking to me?" Dot continued.

"Talk about something I want to talk about and then we'll see."

"You don't want to talk 'bout anything but the death row boys. Most are headed straight to hell. Worrying about what they eat before they fry is a waste of all our time."

"Uh-huh."

Dot questioned her motivation relentlessly. There weren't words to describe the vicious churning of Ginny's gut when executions were scheduled, or the heart-pounding terror that she might fail the inmate in some way. Dot chastised her for worrying about such details; that a man about to meet his Lord and Savior wouldn't taste the food in front of him anyway.

Roscoe thought she might be a tad touched by madness, maybe inherited from her daddy. But his affliction was brought on by alcohol, nothing more. Ginny's madness started the day she was forced to witness the execution of her father's killer. Roscoe had said no eight-year-old should've been subjected to that horror, but the warden gave his permission since Ginny's mama insisted she be there. Roscoe was just one of three dozen prison guards and other staff who'd crammed themselves into the small, cinderblock room to see justice had been done in the name of their fallen brother. She didn't remember seeing Roscoe, but he said he remembered her being there. And it brought him a greater sadness than the fact his friend was dead.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "The Last Suppers"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Mandy Mikulencak.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Last Suppers 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I truly enjoyed the story, a quick and easy read. I was compelled to stay up late and finish the book.
Burncoatgirl More than 1 year ago
An exceptional book, especially for those who have read "The Help" and "Warmth of Other Suns." The plots are beautifully written and the characters - some terribly flawed - are absolutely amazing. There are surprises along the way, and the ending was stupendous. A wise friend gifted this book to me and I am sharing my recommendation to many other friends. You will never look at the 50's history of Louisiana the same again. Magnificent! Congratulations to Mandy Mikulencak.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent reading
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a compelling book that introduces characters with both endearing qualities and flaws that add to the story line. It is a very unique topic that certainly opens up dialogue and conversation about many topics that are relevant today. It would be a great book for any book club. I found this book to be a page turner with some interesting and unexpected twists and turns as the story unfolds. The Last Suppers made me want to read more and I stayed up late one night to finish it! For me, that's always the best rating when I cannot put the book down until it's finished. I did appreciate both the beauty and the flaws of the heroine. Add this one to your bookshelf! You won't be disappointed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This would be a great pick for book clubs. This book offers so many topics for discussion, such as how meals shape our memories, mother-daughter relationships, civil rights, treatment of prisoners, and more. Wonderful historical details and absorbing story about an unconventional heroine. An easy, enjoyable read. The author researched recipes from cookbooks published in the 1930s-1950s and included a number of them in the back of the novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This would be a great pick for book clubs. This book offers so many topics for discussion, such as how meals shape our memories, mother-daughter relationships, civil rights, treatment of prisoners, and more. Wonderful historical details and absorbing story about an unconventional heroine. An easy, enjoyable read. The author researched recipes from cookbooks published in the 1930s-1950s and included a number of them in the back of the novel.
Chris721 More than 1 year ago
Ginny Polk works at the same prison her Daddy did. He was a prison guard and was murdered when Ginny was a small child. Ginny is the prison cook and she takes it upon herself to make last suppers before the inmates are executed. Ginny's life has been hard as her Mother wasn't very kind to her. I truly felt for Ginny and all she has been through in her life. Ginny finds out some secrets about her Daddy's murder and she investigates until she gets to the truth. This was a wonderful story of family, love, and secrets. I received an ARC through NetGalley and Kensington Books and all opinions are my own.
CathyGeha More than 1 year ago
The Last Suppers by Mandy Mikulencak Dark, twisted, emotionally challenging this is a story of people caught up in life…and death. The setting of this story is Greenmount Penitentiary in Louisiana – a fictitious place brought to life through the excellent writing of the author. The period of time ranges from the late 1920’s through the early 1960’s. The issues/topics included are many and each one seems to impact another much as dominoes falling one after another. Family, abuse, lies, KKK, race, friendship, love, belonging, death, trauma, psychological issues, giving, caring, pain…and so much more. The main characters are Roscoe Simms – warden and Ginny Polk – penitentiary head cook. Peripheral/supporting characters include: Dot (cook’s assistant), Miriam (Ginny’s mother), Joe (Ginny’s father) various guards at the penitentiary and the prisoners being executed and the families of those prisoners. The blurb for this book gives an idea of what the book might be about but the story is so much more than the blurb. The gradual unfolding of the backstories makes each character bigger and more complex than first expected with each page read and left me pondering and wishing that for most things could have been radically different while also explaining why the story needed to progress as it did. I am still pondering and thinking and wishing that the characters had things easier BUT I am also thankful to have met and become acquainted with each one of them as they will remain with me for quite some time. This is a book that will not disappear from my mind quickly. It will stick and in sticking do what I like a book to do…make me care and share and think and grow. Thank you to NetGalley and Kensington Books-A John Scognamiglio Book for the ARC – This is my honest review. 5 Stars
CathyGeha More than 1 year ago
The Last Suppers by Mandy Mikulencak Dark, twisted, emotionally challenging this is a story of people caught up in life…and death. The setting of this story is Greenmount Penitentiary in Louisiana – a fictitious place brought to life through the excellent writing of the author. The period of time ranges from the late 1920’s through the early 1960’s. The issues/topics included are many and each one seems to impact another much as dominoes falling one after another. Family, abuse, lies, KKK, race, friendship, love, belonging, death, trauma, psychological issues, giving, caring, pain…and so much more. The main characters are Roscoe Simms – warden and Ginny Polk – penitentiary head cook. Peripheral/supporting characters include: Dot (cook’s assistant), Miriam (Ginny’s mother), Joe (Ginny’s father) various guards at the penitentiary and the prisoners being executed and the families of those prisoners. The blurb for this book gives an idea of what the book might be about but the story is so much more than the blurb. The gradual unfolding of the backstories makes each character bigger and more complex than first expected with each page read and left me pondering and wishing that for most things could have been radically different while also explaining why the story needed to progress as it did. I am still pondering and thinking and wishing that the characters had things easier BUT I am also thankful to have met and become acquainted with each one of them as they will remain with me for quite some time. This is a book that will not disappear from my mind quickly. It will stick and in sticking do what I like a book to do…make me care and share and think and grow. Thank you to NetGalley and Kensington Books-A John Scognamiglio Book for the ARC – This is my honest review. 5 Stars