Death Minus Hours
The day before his execution, I saw my dad for the next to last time.
I had never seen him this thin, nor this unshaven. In fact, I can’t for the life of me ever remember him unshaven. Yet, here in his cell, with only a day to go—less than a day, now, more like twenty hours (not even that) till the blessed event, as he liked to call it—the gray stubble was probably a week old.
It had been a while. For months, now, he had refused all visitors, and not even the Warden, apparently, could overrule that. But now, Death banging on the door as it were, he had finally conceded to see me. But that’s where he drew the line. Only me. No Frannie. No mom. Absolutely no mom.
So there I was. Sitting next to him on his narrow death-row cot.
The cell’s cinderblocked walls were not exactly white. My guess is that they had been white at some point, but that too much cleaning over the condemned years had worn off much of the paint to reveal the gray of the cinder beneath. Somewhere between white and gray, like an impure white. Couldn’t put my finger on it, not that I tried very hard. But that’s what I was looking at waiting for him to say something, waiting for him to look up at me.
But he wouldn’t. Would not look up at me. Would not look me in the eye. He’d glance, though, now and then, at my knees, as if to assure himself I was still there and still prepared to listen to what he had to say. Finding me still there, he’d continue the nervous rub of his misshapen left thumb, which lacked its nail—something that had always fascinated me. Growing up I’d ask him about it. Sometimes he’d say it was a boating accident, other times he’d say nothing. Beyond that he’d never elaborate, no matter how much I pleaded.
He never had no boat.
What fascinated me the most about that thumb was the grotesque little thing that had sprouted in lieu of nail. A little keratin mountain he not so much had to cut as sculpt to make resemble its once-upon-a-time forebear.
Now rubbing it again, as if easing a long-ago pain, or some untold sin, and then another glance in my direction, higher this time, chest-high, it almost caught my eye (at least the corner of), though soon enough back to some portion of the floor by his feet.
Then he said, as if this had just occurred to him, which it may well have, but somehow I doubt it, “She had the most beautiful voice, Carla did.”
Carla was my aunt, my dad’s sister, dead these many years by his hand.
“I always said she could sing the rain away if she had a mind. She could have been a star.”
Then he fell quiet again. Did he expect me to answer? I wasn’t sure, so I didn’t. Then he said:
“They say you piss yourself, or worse.”
He was to hang. They give you a choice in this state, and he had been given it: the chair or hanging. Your pick. Done right, or so I’ve read, hanging snaps your neck and you die pretty much on the spot. Done wrong, you’re strangled at the end of a rope—or cable rather, which is what they use here, a cable with a big fat rope noose at the end of it that’s supposed to snap your neck, but if it doesn’t, if it’s not positioned correctly, instead it’ll leave you dangling, chocking, eventually dying from strangulation. We should all pray the hangman in this place knows what he’s doing.
The chair, he’d concluded, is very messy. He’d done some research. Asked some questions. Some even survive it, pissing and shitting all over themselves, he said at the time, and has to be done over. Hanging any day, he said—not quite singing its praises, but not far from it.
I still didn’t know what to say, so I waited for more, while he massaged his little hillock of a faux thumbnail. I’d wager that he wasn’t aware of doing that. He certainly wasn’t looking at his thumb while doing it.
More like autopilot.
Then he found and picked up his first thread, and this time he looked up at me, just a flash of eyes:
“She always could, you know. And did. Always did. Sing, you know. Carla. But Dad didn’t like it. Women, like children, should be seen, not heard, was his philosophy, Dad’s. And even though the Parson himself, in person, came to our house, and more than once, and asked him whether Carla could join the church choir, Dad refused, the son of a bitch. It’ll lead to no good, is what he told the Parson. It’ll lead to no good.”
Then he added, as if it had just occurred to him, “She died of a broken heart.”
Curious thing to say, I thought, since he had killed her.
“He could be pretty mean,” I asked more than agreed.
He stopped rubbing his missing nail and looked up in surprise. At me, a little longer this time. “What are you talking about?”
“Grandpa,” I said. “Your dad. Jake. He could be pretty mean.”
“He died before you were born, son.”
“No, he didn’t.”
That threw him for a while. “Maybe I’m thinking of his dad,” he said.
“Must be,” I said.
Then I suggested, “You didn’t like him very much.”
He looked out the barred window. I followed his glance. Blue sky out there. Fine weather.
Then back at me, then back at the floor. “Who didn’t I like very much?”
“Not very much, no.”
“When did you last see him?” I asked.
“At his funeral. They let me out so I could make sure he was dead. Two escorts. None too subtle. Big guys. One had hands the size of badgers. As if I was gonna run. Stupid.”
“Alive, I mean.”
He had to think about that. “He was in a home,” he said. “He was dying then. They let me see him twice in that place. He was too sick to come here and him dying and wanting to see me made some difference with the Warden apparently. So they let me out. Big guards. He was in some sort of home.”
“I know,” I said.
“He hated it there,” he said. “That’s what he told me.”
“I know,” I said again. I was all too familiar with that part of the story since, toward the end of grandpa Jake’s life, the hospice bills all headed my way—mainly, I believe, because I would pay them.
“Couldn’t wait to get out of there, is what he said.”
“Well, he did,” I said.
“That he did,” he agreed.
“He was very strict,” I said.
“Did you ever meet him?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Many times.”
“Well, then you’d know.”
Not necessarily. Grandpa Jake was never anything but kind to me. Would always slip me some extra cash—especially when Dad asked him not to. Always on his best behavior, as Dad would put it, when I was around. Carla, of course, was still alive then, and always, it seemed to me, in the background. Fading back into the walls and the curtains. Ghostlike almost. Treading lightly.
“Of a broken heart,” said Dad, after a brief silence.
I said nothing.
“He wouldn’t let her sing in the Church choir.”
“Is that what broke her heart?” I asked.
He considered that question for a while. Then he answered, “No. That’s not what broke it.”
“What was it then, broke it?”
A longer silence. Lots of stuff to sort through, I gathered, and none of it too well-organized.
Then, a well-considered: “He was a real bastard.”
“And strict,” I added, blowing on the fledgling fire to make sure it took hold.
“It wasn’t so much that he worried about what no-good Carla’s singing in the church choir would lead to, it was that he did not want to see Carla happy. Women, apparently, had no right to be. Especially not Carla.”
“Yes it is.”
“No, I mean, that’s a terrible thing to say about Grandpa Jake.”
“You asked me if he was strict,” he said. “That man did not work by rules like that.”
When he didn’t go on, I said, “I don’t understand.”
Again, he was inspecting some internal records and didn’t answer right away. Lining things up just so, it appeared.
“Strict,” he finally said. “When you talk about strict, you also talk about rules. Strict needs rules.”
“And there were none?”
I don’t think he heard that. “Strict means that at the back of them, at the back of the rules, there would be some decent purpose, some reason for making sure you obey. For your own good sort of reason. To harden you to life, better prepare you. Your good in mind. That bastard never had your good in mind, never had anybody’s good in mind. He only had his own good in mind.”
He stopped rubbing his thumb and looked me right in the eyes again.
“He was a weak little man who made it through life by keeping those around him in misery, by keeping them down and smaller, and more miserable than him.”
“Not that little,” I said.
“No. Not physically, no. Bigger than most. At least before he took ill.”
“I remember, ” I said.
“Notice something about pictures with him in them?” he asked, as if the thought had just struck him, which, again, it may just have.
“He’s always the tallest?” I suggested.
“He’s always in front,” said my father. “Could not stand anyone standing in front of him.”
True enough, I thought—leafing through my own filing system, inspecting the photos I had seen of the man in his younger days.
“Yes, he is,” I confirmed.
“There was one of him and Mom, and Carla and me, where you only see the three of them. Mom is in her yellow dress. Dad’s holding a loaded rifle. Remember that one?”
As a matter of fact, I did. I knew the picture well, I had a copy of it. Not only a copy, it was sitting, enlarged to about eight by ten in a pewter frame atop my fake fireplace mantle. Grandpa, Carla, Grandma. No sign of Dad.
“I do. I have it.”
“Well, I was scrambling to get in the picture. Water-combing my hair. Got out in the yard in the last minute. Uncle Frank just about to shoot, yelling at me to get in front, now. So I do, get in front. Next I knew, Dad’s kicked me in the back, hard. I flew forward on my face, wondering if my back was broken.”
“And Frank didn’t wait for you to get up?”
“Of course not. Dad would have beat the shit out of him, and he knew that.”
“How old were you then?”
“About nine or so.”
Weird thing: I can see him now, my father, in that pewter frame on the mantle. No, not in the frame, just below it, on the mantle itself, sprawled, hurting. Grandpa ignoring him completely. Dad doesn’t exist for the large man with the rifle. Loaded rifle, my dad elaborates. Something I had not known.
“I’m sorry,” I said. For lack of anything better to say.
“Well, so was I.”
“Was he as rich as rumor had it?” Which I assumed was pure fiction, of course, since I had had to pay his hospice bills in the end.
“What rumor was that? You mean Frank’s story about the chest in the attic?”
“For one, yes.”
“I think that was just a story. Frank had been reading Treasure Island or something like that. He was never quite all there,” he added as an afterthought.
“But you never hurt for money, did you?”
“No, not that I can recall.”
“And he didn’t work? Or have I got that wrong?”
“He was a framer. That’s what he told anyone who asked.”
“Did you ever see him do any framing?”
“No, I didn’t. That’s not to say that he didn’t work as a framer. When I was little, I would have been too young to notice.”
“But not as far as you remember?”
“No, not as far as I remember.”
“Did he own the house?”
“Free and clear.”
“So, where did he get the money?”
“Well, he inherited the house, you know. His dad built it.”
“But it’s a fair question, now that you ask it. We never lacked for anything, and, no, I don’t remember him working.”
“So, maybe there was a chestful of gold in the attic?” I joked.
“Maybe,” said my dad, returning to his internal filing system for a while, sifting through scraps.
“Grandma?” I asked, not really sure what I was asking.
Neither was he. “What about her?”
“You mom. Was he? I mean, did he?”
“He never laid a hand on her,” said my father. “Never.”
“As sure as I can be.”
“Maybe it was her money?” I said as the thought just struck me.
“What are you talking about?”
“The chest in the attic.”
That earned me another glance. Eye to eye. He didn’t say anything though. Just thought about it. Sifting through more scraps.
I waited while he sifted. Then he seemed done sifting, but he still didn’t say anything. Instead he began rubbing his thumb hill again, and for so long that I began to wonder whether he had forgotten that I was there. So I shifted a little, just to make a noise. His cot protested, but not loudly enough for him to notice.
He struck me as extraordinarily calm, considering the circumstances. I looked at my watch, the hanging was now only a little over nineteen hours away. I could not even imagine.
I had a room booked at the local Days Inn, only ten minutes from the prison. I’d stay there tonight, and arrive back here at five in the morning, that’s the earliest they let anyone in, spectators. Family or not, doesn’t matter, it’s five o’clock, that’s what the Warden said, twice, if not three times.
Dad did not want me to witness the hanging. In fact, I had promised him I wouldn’t be there, but he’d be wearing a hood, wouldn’t he? So he’d never know.
“He really had it in for her,” he said, finally.
“No. For Carla.” Then he said, “Where’s Benjamin?”
“Benjamin drowned, Dad. Don’t you remember?”
Back to the filing system. For quite a while. “Yes, I remember now. I guess I meant Frannie. Where is she?”
He had told her specifically not to come. Forbidden her to come. Both over the phone to her directly, and several times, and through me, several times. Make sure Frannie doesn’t come. They had never been close, but still, she wanted to say goodbye, properly, is what she told me. He wouldn’t have any of it.
Once the final appeal had been turned down and a date set, he had not wanted to see anyone, but he finally had agreed to see me, but only me. He was adamant about that.
“You told her not to come, Dad.”
“I did?” Looking up at me again.
“Yes, you did.”
He seemed surprised at that. Twisting his thumb now, frustrated fingers trying to make two and two add up. “Could you call her?” he said. “Or is it too late?”
“For Frannie to come?”
“It’s too late, Dad. She’s still in Amherst. She couldn’t get here today even if I called her right now. Even if she wanted.”
“She wouldn’t want to?” he asked, surprised.
“Of course she’d want to. She literally begged you. But you didn’t want to see her. I assume you had a reason.”
“I must have had,” he said.
“And you don’t want anyone here tomorrow,” I added. Making sure-ish.
“No, I don’t,” he said. “I don’t want anyone here tomorrow.”
“Except the priest.” Again, confirming.
“The prison chaplain. I don’t know his name.”
“Yes, him. Only him.”
“And the Warden.”
“I don’t care about the Warden. It’s his job.”
“I guess it is,” I said.
Again, the conversation floundered—a ship onto rocks. Him working his thumb, me wondering if Frannie could indeed make it. I shook my head. No way. Not by the end of today, and she would not want to arrive just to see him, well, hang.
The conversation remained stranded and I finally decided that this was as good a time as any to ask what I’d come to ask, or, rather, to press him all the way for the answer I’d never managed to pry out of him before.
“Why did you kill her, Dad?”
He answered almost immediately, as if he had anticipated the question.
“I’ve told you,” is what he said.
“No you have not,” I informed him. “Not once. Not ever.”
Onto rocks again. This time, however, I had the feeling he would tell me, eventually. As long as I expected him to and would not let go, he would tell me. He would tell me.
The sun had swung around the main prison building and was now brushing a very precise though slanting rectangle of light on the cinder-block wall. Very silently.
Then he drew breath, quite loudly. To finally answer, I assumed.
But no. He breathed out again. A sigh, just as loud and wordless.
“Why, Dad?” I reminded him.
“I,” he said.
I said nothing, waiting.
Speaking to the floor now, he said. “I had to put her out of her misery.”
He looked up at me again. I said nothing. Waiting for more.
“She was hurting so bad, Benjamin.”
“I’m not Benjamin, Dad.”
Which earned me another glance. “Yes,” he confirmed. I was not Benjamin.
“She was hurting,” I prodded.
“She was hurting,” he said. “Every hour of the day, every day of the week. And he would never let her out of his sight.”
“Is it true that Grandpa would not let her marry. She did have a boyfriend, didn’t she?”
“Not a boyfriend, no, but a suitor. She had a suitor. They had never boyfriended and girlfriended it, if you know what I mean. But the boy, someone who knew her from school, had gotten it into his head that he wanted to marry her, and he asked her more than once. And more than once, every time he asked, she told him yes, if Jake would allow it.”
“And he never did?”
“Because Carla was a much better cook than Ma was. He wanted her to stick around and cook for him.”
“Is that true?”
“Of course it is true. What do you think, I’d sit here at death’s door and lie to you?”
Back onto rocks.
But I just had to ask, “If Grandpa was making her life such a misery, why didn’t you kill him instead of her?”
Without hesitation he answered, “I’ve been asking myself the same question for the last twenty years.”
The killing made headlines, at least locally. The thoroughness of it. The gruesomeness.
It was Grandma who found her. Carla dead in her bed, stabbed through the chest and stomach many, many times. What was curious, though, reported the police—and echoed the papers and television news—was the blood, so little of it. Should have been soaking in blood, my aunt Carla, so the papers said.
So an autopsy was ordered, which established two things (much to the delight of the media): She had been poisoned. They found enough strychnine in her system to kill her, but it never got the chance to. For, as the autopsy went on to report, the poison—though she had died from asphyxiation, which is how strychnine will eventually kill you—was not the cause of death. The cause of death was asphyxiation from smothering, by a pillow was the official guess. And then, some hours later, as if to make trebly sure, the killer had stabbed her with a long-bladed knife, which was later found in the kitchen sink, Carla’s blood and all. No fingerprints, killer must have wiped it clean.
So they said.
He was arrested two days later and has not seen the outside of prison since—except for court appearances, of course, of which there have been many, and except for the three furloughs to see his dad, twice alive though dying and once dead.
The police and the district attorney figured they had my dad dead to rights and predicted a speedy and certain conviction. Not so.
The public defender, a short, stocky man with the unlikely name of Sylvester Rambo (Grandpa Jake refused to foot the bill for someone more professional or successful) pointed to the rather obvious: this was sheer insanity. Poison, asphyxiation, and stabbing, what sane person would possibly? And then proceeded to successfully press this point home through two mistrials over the next six years, before the third trial finally convicted him twelve years ago and sentenced him to die.
Rambo, who by now was making quite a name for himself keeping my father alive, then filed and lost three appeals. This took another five years.
My dad now irrevocably convicted, the industrious Rambo did not lose heart, however, but set out on his long-running, though ultimately unsuccessful project of having my dad’s sentence commuted to life in prison, which took six years to fail. Sentence to be carried out as ordered. Date set. Governor not interested.
“I should have,” he said. “I really should have.”
I nodded in agreement. Grandpa Jake would have made a more appropriate target, if there had to be one.
“Why?” I asked him again. Meaning, why had he killed my aunt. None of the trials had ever shed meaningful light on that question, Rambo riding the insanity defense for all its worth and that did not include rational answers as to motive.
He understood what I meant. Pulling and twisting his thumb, rubbing that little mountain of a nail with his other thumb, over, over, over, over. Whatever he meant to tell me was not coming easily.
“You must have had a reason,” I said by way of a prompt. “You said that she was hurting, what that it?” Then I added, “You’re not crazy, Dad. Never have been.”
When he finally did answer, and once I had wrapped my wits around it, it made so much sense that I wondered why I had never thought of it.
“She asked me to.”
“She asked you to?”
“What do you mean, Dad? She asked you to.”
“Just that. She asked me to kill her. Well, to help her.”
“That was your motive?” A question that, in retrospect, I find stupid.
He cast me a not friendly glance, “I never had a motive. She had a motive. She was living in hell, Benjamin. Her heart more than broken. It was broken, stepped on, crushed, ground into the dirt by that bastard. What reason had she to live? She wanted to die, but just could not do it on her own.”
“I’m not Benjamin, Dad.”
“Well, then who the hell are you?”
“Benjamin drowned, Dad.” Then, to clarify, “I’m David, Dad. David.”
“That’s who I meant,” he said. “Of course I know who you are. David.”
“So what happened?” I said.
“She asked me to help her. Of course, I refused. But then she told me what she was going through, and she kinda confirmed what I knew in my heart and guts: she was living a hell in that house.
“She had the most wonderful voice, Carla did, but the bastard wouldn’t even let her sing in the house. Would not let her sing in the choir. Would not even let her laugh for Christ’s sake—he once reached over and smacked her face right there during dinner for laughing at something I told her. Right there. In front of everybody.
“She could not take it anymore, she said. I said I would help her run away, move out of state. Get a job. A new life. Her own. She then told me he’d said he’d kill her if she ever tried a stunt like that. As if he knew I had a mind to. He’ll never find you, I said. He will, she answered. She was sure of that.
“No, there was only one kind of running away, she said. But she could not do it on her own.”
After a long pause, he continued, “It took me months, Benjamin—sorry, David—but I finally agreed. I would help her. How could I help? I asked her. Find me some poison, she said. Something that’ll kill me quick and for sure. Well, I didn’t know what would kill her quick, but I finally managed to get hold of some strychnine, which I had heard would kill you for sure. Not much, but enough to do the job.
“She was very grateful, but said she could not do it alone. I’d have to come and stay with her. The next night, she said. I agreed. We set a time.”
Then he stopped. As if what he now looked at was too painful to voice.
I said nothing. Waited. Feeling now that if I were patient and said or did nothing, he would continue. Gut feeling.
“You see, she wanted me by her side while she died. To hold her hand, to see her go, as she put it. To see her leave. I arrived as agreed. It was late. Jake and Mom were asleep upstairs. I knocked on the front door. She opened it and said let’s go into the kitchen. So we did. She carried the little paper pouch with the poison in her hand. Like something precious, which I guess it was in a way. Once in the kitchen she mixed the strychnine with some water, stirred it forever it seemed, it would not dissolve. Then, spoon still in hand, I noticed that, she just gulped it down, eagerly almost. Yes, eagerly. Then she looked at me as if expecting applause or something. Very satisfied with herself. Put the glass and spoon down on the counter. In fact, she then rinsed them and put them away. The she turned for her room. Took my hand on the way, and I trailed her.
“She lay down on her bed, and I sat down on the chair she had placed beside it for that very purpose. She had arranged it just so. Sit there, she said, and I sat.
“I don’t know, I have no idea, what I had expected next. But I know what I had hoped. I had hoped that she would simply fade away, me holding her hand for assurance that she was loved. And it started out that way. I held her hand, she lay there still as anything, waiting for the angels.
“Then, after about ten minutes, her legs began to spasm, then her neck, and arms. She wanted to scream, I could tell, from the pain of it. Then again, she drew breath to scream, but I knew she did not want to wake Jake and mother.
“The spasms eased then, and for a minute or two she lay still. But the convulsions, and the pain, which I have later found out must have been excruciating—I had no idea at the time—were only having a breather, gathering strength, and then they set upon her again, for real this time. She arched from it, eyes wide open with the pain of it. This was not the way it was supposed to go. She calmed again, but only long enough to turn to me and say, help me.
“She arched again and moaned rather than screamed. She turned to me and looked at me with eyes sprung open as some crazy horse and she said it again, help me, help me.
“What could I do to help her, David. I had no idea. And again the convulsions and again the help me, help me, instead of screams, help me, help me.
“I guess I panicked, and I did the only thing I could think of doing. I put her out of her misery with the pillow. Took it from beneath her head and scrambledonto the bed. Straddled her. Then I pressed it so hard against her face that she had no way of breathing, and I sat on top of her and held it there against her face while she bucked underneath me like some wild bronc though less and less as she ran out of air.
“Five minutes perhaps, it took. But then she was still again. Real still. I lifted the pillow and could see the she was gone. Then I climbed off of her and put the pillow back under her head and arranged her hair a little, just to make her look proper. Then I left. The back door. Went home. I was shaking all over and saw or heard nothing until I woke up the following morning your mom shaking me telling me the terrible news.”
After a while I said, “You never stabbed her?”
“No,” he said. “I never stabbed her.”
“Jake did,” he said. And before I could ask, he went on, “He told me the last time I saw him alive. Just a shell of a man by now, but he still enjoyed telling me this, I could tell. Evil to the last.
“Told me there was no breakfast ready for him when he got up that morning so he went into her room to teach her a lesson. Took him a while to realize she was dead but once he was sure that she was, that she had in fact got away from him, this pissed him off so much he went and got a knife from the kitchen and hacked her up for dying on him.
“Then had the presence of mind to wipe the handle clean of his prints. He was proud of that, he said.”
I found I had run all dry. Mouth like sand. Could not say a thing.
“Those were his words, he hacked her up for dying on him. Said she had done it on purpose to piss him off.”
I finally worked my tongue loose. “You should have killed him instead.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“She asked me not to,” he said.
“She asked you not to?”
“I told her I’d rather kill Jake than help her die, but she would have none of it. Said she could not live with having killed him. You won’t be the one killing him, I said, I will. Same thing, she said. Would not hear of it. I should not have listened to her, I know that. I’ve known that for these last twenty years. I should have fed that bastard the strychnine and stood by to watch him convulse for a couple of hours before dying. That would have been the right thing to do.”
I nodded again, agreed.
A long, new silence.
Then he did the last thing I had expected, for he was not a touchy-feely person by any stretch. He reached over and took my hand. “That’s what happened,” he said. “You can tell the others once I’m gone, that’s fine with me.”
He squeezed my hand and I squeezed back. “I will,” I said.
“You should go now,” he said.
I looked at my watch. I had several more hours. “I’d rather stay,” I said.
“You should go now,” he said, and meant it.
As it turned out my dad refused the hood. He had that right, and it was granted. So, when they slipped the noose around his neck, and positioned the large knot just so, to make sure his neck would snap, he looked down at the two short rows of folding chairs below the scaffold that seated the chaplain, the warden, and me. Squinting a little against the light to make us out his eyes did meet mine and as they did I could see that he was glad I had come after all.
I heard his neck snap, and I was glad that it did.