“Awful nice they let momma and Sissy come visit. Coulda done without seeing my pa though.”
Reverend Frank lifts an eyebrow. “You had visitors today, Junior?”
“Well, yeah. I reckon cause it’s my hanging day and all. Sure was nice to see ‘em one last time. Funny how they looked the same as they did afor they sent me away. Momma pretty a picture. Wore her Sunday best, I can tell. She always wore a flower in her hair for special days. Daisies was her favorite. Sure miss the color. Ever think bout that Gus? There just ain’t no color round here. Everything grey. Even the food.” I laugh. Always been the funny sort, yep that’s me, even in the thick of it.
“It’s me, Junior, Reverend Frank.”
I jerk my head up and give him a good stare. “Well sure, I know that.”
“Is there anything you’d like to confess, my son?”
I slap my leg. “Well now, ain’t that the ten million dollar question. I think I done confessed all there is to confess. Nobody wanted to hear it. You won’t be saying no last rights fer me neither, you hear me Father? I don’t think I’m much of a believer anymore, and I sure as hell ain’t been no follower.”
“The Lord is full of mercy, you can ask for his forgiveness, and it will be granted.”
“See that’s the thing, I can’t ask fer no forgiveness. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sorry for what I done. Sorry don’t even cover it, but I ain’t asking. Now if He sees fit to have mercy on me, well fine and dandy. He know I done my time, took my punishment and now I’m gonna die for it. I ain’t one to beg, never have been, and I ain’t starting now.”
“That’s not how it works, Junior. You must take Jesus into your heart. His glory will make you weep. I guarantee it.”
“I guess bottom line is I don’t think God gives a rat’s ass about little ole me. I’ve had a lot a time to think, and I done my fair share of praying, but not one thing come of it. I loved the Lord as good as any southern man, but he done turned his back on me. Left me to rot in here. I come in here a young man, but I ain’t young no more.”
“God would never turn his back on you. He loves us.”
I give a whistle. “That’s a mighty strong statement. One I don’t believe for one minute. I gave up on believing long time ago, tell the truth. And I ain’t going to beg for his love just in case it is true. I done what I done, and if there be a hell, then that’s where I’m headed.”
Reverend Frank hung his head. Made me mad. One more person I went and disappointed. I knows I failed. Failed everybody I ever met, but he don’t need to act like that. Ain’t his place to judge, ain’t that right?
“Let me ask you this, Reverend. Now I spent me some time out on the main floor before they put me on the row. Some of those men lot harder in the heart than me. Done a lot of damage out in the world they didn’t get caught for, but that don’t mean they don’t brag about it. Fact is they do. They like sharing every detail.
“Now these same men got tattoos, ya see? Tattoos of the crucifix, tattoos of the Lady Mary, tattoos saying ‘Jesus loves me.’ And they all go to the chapel and pray like the devil was in ‘em, figuring that would get them up to Heaven. Well now I know there ain’t a speck of sorrow in their heart for what they done. I know that if they was to get out they would do it again. Tell me Reverend, them men going to heaven? Even if they got no remorse?”
“I can’t say what is in the mind of God, but I know he has bountiful love, even for those who don’t seem to deserve it. Maybe he loves them the most, because they need him the most. It’s not my place to judge.”
“Well, I’m a judging. Don’t seem like fairness to me. Them fellers, they ain’t good. Not a speck of good in ‘em. That’s why I say, let the chips fall where they may. If he’s a loving God like you say, then he should find a way to open his heart to me without me going to him. I tried that, I tell you. He don’t listen.”
“He listens, my son.” The reverend stands and makes the sign over me. “Would you pray with me?”
“Tell ya I’m done with that. You do what you gotta do and get. I hope death takes ya to Him, I really do. I’ll give ya a wave from down there.”
Here we go. They move me to a little room outside the execution room. I see the chair as I shuffle by. I hear the wood they made it with came straight from the ole gallows, back when they had real hanging days. I wonder just how many ghosts live in that wood. How many poor souls let loose their bowels after praying and begging forgiveness?
Gus lathers up my head and takes a straight razor to what’s left of my hair, then does the same down by my shin.
“What you doing that for?”
Gus won’t look at me. “It’s where they tape the wire. So they get a good connection.” He pats my knee. “It’s best to have a good connection.”
It’s nice to feel a human’s touch, even if it was a man. Lordy the years were long.
There’s a knock at the door, and Gus fetches a heaping plate of fried chicken and biscuits and gravy. My, oh my it smells good.
“Wish I was still on the row so I could share with the boys. Think you could give them some, Gus? Way too much for me here.”
“You know I can’t do that, Junior.”
“Could you eat with me? Sure would like that.”
Gus looks at the door prolly wishing he had a polite way to escape, but he pulls up a chair across from me. “Hate to see it go to waste.”
Can’t believe how much I ate. Figured with one foot at the gates of Hell, I might not have an appetite, but I wolfed that chicken down. Prolly ate six of them biscuits. Lord, that was some good food. I’m gonna make a mess of that chair when the time comes.
“Now if only we had a nice cigarette for dessert. It’s the little things like that I missed most over the years. You smoke, Gus?”
“Used to. They say it’s not good for your health. The wife made me quit.”
I chuckle. “Wouldn’t want to do anything that might jeopardize my health.”
Gus gives me a weird look, and we break out laughing. Now that’s a good feeling. Not much to laugh about, but we make the best of it.
Dear Lord, why they just get down to it? Ain’t never been so scared in my life. Oh Jesus, oh Jesus. I ain’t praying, mind you. Not even at this late date. I’m fearful for the pain. Never been much for pain. Inflicted it was another matter.
I was always a pussy when it come to Daddy. I felt his pain a time or two. I would start to blubber, screaming out “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” even though I ain’t done nothing. Maybe that’s why Sissy always had to step up. She used to take his whippings in silence cause she knew crying would just egg him on.
Kinda like ‘em cats. The more they screamed the louder Billy would laugh. Fuel on the fire, so to speak.
I walk a mile around the little table still littered with chicken and biscuits. All the food I ate bunches up in my gut and afore I know it, it’s coming up. Got most of it in the toilet. Bet that toilet seen more than its fair share of puke.
They’re coming for me. I hear the rattle of the keys as ole Gus opens the door. Everybody awake. I know they is. Ain’t nobody sleep on a hanging day.
“Time to go, Junior.”
“Yes sir, I’m ready.” I say that, but I can’t get my legs to work. There’s a tightness in my throat like a constrictor got ahold a me and was squeezing. Gus grabs my elbow and helps me to my feet. He’s a good fella, for a black man.
“You think you can make it from here?”
I stand up tall. Maybe for once in my life I can be brave. “I’ll try.”
It’s only a dozen steps, but it seems like it takes a lifetime. Or maybe no time at all. They sit me in that chair with wire and straps hanging all over it. Gus steps back and finally looks me in the eye. I just barely make out a nod. He was saying his goodbye.
They strap down my arms, my legs, and run a couple round my middle. I hear the electricity makes a man dance something fierce.
They wrap something around my leg that’s connected to a thick wire snaking over to a big ole switch on the wall. They put this leather contraption on my chin and around my head. Look like the muzzle ole man Hinckey kept on his fighting dogs.
Lastly they take a sponge soaking in some water and put it on my head, fit me with this helmet-like thing that has more wires running out of it. They strap it down tight. Water runs down my face into my mouth. Tastes like a river of tears.
Sitting on the other side of the room is a half dozen folks. The only one I recognize is my lawyer. There’s a man and woman I reckon is the little girl’s folks. There ain’t two tears between ‘em all. Can’t sees I blame ‘em. I been gone too long for anyone to mourn me. None of my family is attending. I guess one visit in all these years was plenty.
I reckon it’s a good thing. From what I hear bout the procedure, it ain’t no picture show. Nothing you want to watch over and over again. The lucky ones die first try, but I hear some take a couple jolts to finish the job.
The clock on the wall gives me nine more minutes.
Jesus, why can’t they just throw the switch?
The phone sitting on the table don’t ring. Like there was a chance in hell the governor gave a shit about a piss-ant like me. There’s a clank, clank, clank from down on the row. The boys’ way of saying goodbye. I’m a’shaking, I can’t lie. I don’t wanna die. Jesus take me. Oh Jesus. My heart keeps time with the tribute on the row.
One of the guards puts a black mask over my head. I’m glad it ain’t Gus. Oh Jesus, oh Jesus, oh Jesus.
The first bolt rips through me. Holy mother of God.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes the legal execution of Butch Walker, Jr. Time of death, 12:24am. Please exit the room.”