Read an Excerpt
HE LAY DOWN on the bunk and tried to read. It didn’t work. The words just swam on the page, thoughts that wouldn’t focus. It was just like it had been when he first came here, when he was new, and after two weeks of kicking the walls and iron bars he’d realized that it was simply a matter of putting up with it, that he had to keep breathing while his appeals filled space, to find a way to pass the time without counting.
But today, today was different. Today he wasn’t doing it for his own sake. He knew that. He was thinking of Marv. It was Marv he was reading for. John, every morning the same question, what’s it going to be today? It was important to Marv. Steinbeck? Dostoyevsky?
Four uniformed officers had just escorted the sixty-five-year-old man down the long corridor of locked cells. He was dribbling, thanks to the sedatives they’d given him, and his legs had buckled under him several times, but he’d kept his composure; he hadn’t screamed or cried, and the sharp barbed wire above their heads had twinkled dismally in the weak light that managed to force its way in through the small windows even farther up by the ceiling.
For John Meyer Frey, Marvin Williams was the closest to what other people called a true friend that he’d ever had. An elderly man who had eventually cajoled the aggressive and terrified seventeen-year-old boy into talking, thinking, longing. Perhaps that was what the senior officer had seen—a sense of family strong enough to make him grossly neglect security procedures. They had stood face-to-face in John’s cell, talked quietly together, feeling Vernon Eriksen watching them from the corridor, allowing a few minutes of shared time.
Now he was going to die.
His choice, electric chair or lethal injection. Marv had never been like the others. He hadn’t made the same choice as the others.
He was in the Death House, in one of the two death cells in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, in Marcusville—the final destination for your last twenty-four hours of life, Cell 4 or Cell 5. No other cell had the same number, the number of death, not here, not in East Block, not anywhere else in the great prison. One, two, three, six, seven, eight. That’s how they counted in all the units, all the corridors.
The only black man in town.
He had explained after a few months of nagging, once John started to read the books he recommended. Before the Chinese restaurant with the two dead men at his feet in Ohio, Marv had lived in the mountains of Colorado, in Telluride, an old mining community that had been deserted when the minerals were exhausted. It died out for a while until hippies from the city had moved there in the sixties and transformed it to suit their alternative lifestyle. A couple of hundred enlightened, young, white Americans who believed in what you believed in then: freedom, equality, brotherhood, and everyone’s right to roll a joint.
Two hundred white people and one black man.
Marv really had been the only black man in town.
And some years later, whether it was to provoke people or to demonstrate brotherhood and all that, or due to his constant need for money, he had agreed to marry a woman from South Africa who needed a green card. He had regularly appeared in front of a panel of officials and explained that the only true love for the town’s only black man was, of course, this white woman from the home of apartheid, and he had done this so successfully that she was an American citizen by the time they got divorced some years later.
It was also for her sake that he’d gone to Ohio and stepped into the wrong restaurant.
John sighed, gripped the book even harder, tried again.
Throughout the afternoon and evening, he managed to read only a few lines at a time. He kept picturing Marv in the death cell, which had no bunk—maybe he was sitting there now, on the blue stool that stood in the corner, or he was lying curled up on the floor, staring at the ceiling.
A few more lines, sometimes a whole page, then back to Marv.
The light slowly drained from the small windows and was swallowed by the night. It was hard to lie next to the empty cell and not listen out for Marv’s heavy breathing. To his surprise, John managed to sleep for a couple of hours. The Colombian made less noise than usual, and he was tired from the night before. John woke around seven, with the book under him, then lay there for a few hours more, before rolling over and getting up, almost refreshed.
He could hear clearly that there were visitors.
It was easy to differentiate between the voices of people who were free and those who had been sentenced to death. It was easy to recognize the tone that you hear only in the voice of someone who doesn’t know precisely when they’re going to die, the uncertainty that allows them not to count.
John looked down toward central security. He counted fifteen people as they passed.
They were early—still three hours to go until the execution—and they filed slowly past, peering down the corridor with curious eyes. At the front, the prison warden, a man whom John had seen only once before. The witnesses followed him. John assumed that it was the usual: a few members of the victim’s family, a friend of the person to be executed, some representatives of the press. They were all wearing overcoats and the snow still lay on their shoulders; their cheeks were red, due to the cold or in anticipation of watching someone die.
He spat in their direction through the bars. He was just about to turn around when he suddenly heard central security opening the door and letting someone into the corridor of East Block.
It was a short, stocky man with a mustache and dark, slicked-back hair. He was wearing a fur coat over his gray suit; the snow had melted and the fur was wet. He marched down the middle of the corridor, the black rubbers over his dress shoes slapping on the stone floor. There was no hesitation; he knew where he was going, to which cell he was headed.
John brushed his hair down with a nervous hand and tucked it behind his ears, as he always did, his ponytail hanging down his back. He’d had short hair when he came here but had let it grow ever since, every month another half inch, in case he ever lost the clock that ticked inside him.
He could see the visitor clearly now, as he had stopped squarely in front of his cell; the face that he fled from in the dreams that perpetually haunted him, a face that had once been full of acne and now carried the scars that time and good living had not erased. Edward Finnigan was standing outside in the corridor, his color leeched by winter, his eyes tired.
His lips were tight. He swallowed, raised his voice.
A fleeting glance over his shoulder to central security; he realized that he should keep his voice down if he wanted to stay.
“You took my daughter from me.”
“Finnigan . . .”
“Seven months, one week, four days, and three hours. Exactly. You can appeal as much as you like. I’ll make sure that your appeals are turned down. In exactly the same way that I’m able to stand in front of you now. You know it, Frey.”
The man who was trying unsuccessfully to talk quietly raised his hand to his mouth, a finger to his lips.
“Shhh, don’t interrupt. I don’t like it when murderers interrupt me.”
He moved his finger away. The forcefulness returned to his voice, a force that only hate can provoke.
“Today, Frey, I’m going to watch Williams die, courtesy of the governor. And in October, I’ll be watching you. Do you understand? You only have one spring, only one summer left.”
The man in the fur coat and rubbers was finding it hard to stand still. He hopped from one foot to the other, moved his arms in circles; the hate that he had stored in his belly was being released into his body, forcing his joints and muscles to jump forward. John stood silent, as he had when they met during the trial. The words were to much the same effect; at first he had tried to answer but had then given up. The man in front of him didn’t want any answers, any explanations; he wasn’t ready for that, never would be.
“Go away. You’ve nothing to say to me.”
Edward Finnigan dug his hand into one of his coat pockets and took out something that looked like a book—red cover, gilded pages.
“You listen to this, Frey.”
He leafed through the pages for a few seconds, looking for a bookmark, found it.
“Exodus, chapter twenty-one . . .”
“Leave me alone, Finnigan.”
“. . . twenty-third, twenty-fourth, and twenty-fifth verses.”
He looked over toward central security again, tensed his jaw, gripped the Bible with white fingers.
“But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth . . .”
Edward Finnigan read the text as if it were a sermon.
“. . . hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”
He smiled as he slammed the book shut. John turned around, lay down with his back to the bars and corridor, fixed his gaze on the dirty wall. He lay like this until the steps receded down the corridor and the door at the end was opened and then closed again.
Fifteen minutes to go.
John didn’t need a clock.
He always knew exactly how long he’d been lying down.
He looked at the fluorescent tube on the ceiling, the glass covered with small black marks. Flies that had been attracted to the light that was always on, they had come too close and been fried by the heat. The first few nights he had to hold his hands over his eyes, fighting not only the fear and all the new noises, but also a light that would never be switched off; it had been hard to relax with a glare that constantly held the dark at bay.
He was going to look at it now, until it was over.
Sometimes he hoped there was something after.
Anything more than just a brief inglorious sense of death; more than just the knowledge that right now I’m dying, and then the next moment for it to be over.
The feeling was strongest at times like this, when someone else was about to die, someone who no longer needed to count.
John would lie down and bite the arm of his coveralls and feel his heart pounding; it was hard to breathe, hard to breathe, and then the shakes would rack his body until he spewed all over the floor.
As if he were dying, every time.
John gripped the sides of the bunk when the light seemed to briefly go out. Or had he just imagined it? It flickered again, vanished. While Marv Williams’s body was cramped by electric shocks of between two thousand volts and twenty-five hundred volts, the lights in East Block and West Wing and all the other units in the prison flickered on and off. He had probably vomited after the first shock and then a little bit more with each subsequent shock, until he was completely empty.
It was as if the light came back on and John knew that his ravaged body had for a few seconds slumped forward in a heap on the chair, still alive. He bit the arm of his coverall and wondered what Marv was thinking, if thoughts were louder than pain.
The second shock always lasted for seven seconds, a thousand volts, and the saline water in the copper electrodes that were attached to the head and the right leg started to hiss.
John didn’t bite the orange material anymore. He undid the two buttons closest to the collar and gripped the silver chain and cross that hung there. While he squeezed it, he was sure that the lights went on and off several times, the third and final shock.
Marv’s eyeballs had burst out of the sockets now.
Urine and excrement everywhere.
His swollen body, blackened by third-degree burns where the electrodes had been secured, would be too hot to touch for some time.
He himself hated everything that religion stood for, but did what Marv would have done—he held the crucifix in one hand and with the other made the sign of the cross in the air in front of him.