|End Games in Purgatory|
|Written by Bobbie Metevier|
The electricity required to power the electric chair dimmed the overhead lights from piss-yellow to sawdust-brown. Only nine men remained on death row now. They spoke across the block, glad for the distance--not wanting to see the same ghosts reflected in each other’s eyes.
"Clay was a good guy."
"He was the finest magician I ever knew."
"God keep him."
"Fuck Clay Heinlich."
When the order came down and his execution had finally been scheduled, Clay only smiled. "I bet I can beat the chair."
Dave Spool hadn't taken the bet. He didn't see the humor. But it was always this way with Clay. He preached conquering.
"Everything can be conquered," he sometimes said, "Everything and everyone."
In the prison yard, he was forever pulling blue marbles from behind people's ears--always blue. He levitated a beetle. He brought an emaciated spider back to life. It was just another part of his legend and another piece of prison lore.
Confinement did that to some men. When you had nothing but time on your hands, you could master almost anything--even illusions.
Dave Spool knew the ritual. Tonight D Block would be on high alert, the screws operating under the notion that tensions ran higher after an execution and that riots were more likely in the days to follow. It was the opposite in Dave's opinion. News of death defeated a man, chipped out another hunk of his spirit until he no longer mourned his prison buddy, but instead mourned only for himself.
"He was one of the magic ones," said Bernie Dobson. "He always healed things."
"He wasn't magic," scoffed Dave. "He knew a few parlor tricks--nothing more."
It was hard to have a decent conversation on the row, especially for Dave Spool who prior to his crime had been a probate attorney. Yeah, his offense was huge, notorious even. So heinous, in fact, that others on the row never even asked what he'd done. There was no need. His sins had been all over the news, splashed across every paper in America and even debated on late-night television, but his crime had taken nothing from his intellect.
It wasn't that there weren't any educated men on the row to converse with--most prisoners, having nothing better to do, read to no end--but their lives and minds before books always shone through. They clung to old ideals, despite their newfound wisdom--pride and country, archaic superstitions coupled with dated talismans.
Dave tried hard to dodge Bernie Dobson in the frigid prison yard, but Bernie wouldn't have it. There had, after all, been an execution last night--not just any execution either. Clay Heinlich was gone--their magician, their harbinger of hope.
"Watch me beat the chair. Watch me beat it . . ."
Dave felt there was going to be a nor'easter. The air always turned odorless and dry just before.
"Time makes you see things that other folk ignore, folks on the outside." Bernie said, fighting to keep up with Dave's pacing, his breath coming in white puffs.
"I'm sure it does." Dave never really knew what Bernie was talking about, but he stopped moving to spare the old man's breath.
"Learn it," Bernie said. "Learn the game, son. You'll need it."
Again, with the game. Dave could understand a man Bernie's age slipping in his mental faculties, but Corbin Stainer from cell five was also obsessed with the game. It was a riddle that Dave didn't care to decipher, a death row superstition that he could surely do without.
"Do you see Clay in the yard, Bernie? He's down in the morgue, down in the freezers. Or maybe they've already transported him to the funeral home. He's in a coffin or . . . or a drawer."
"I see lots of people in the yard."
Dave counted only three, sighed and tried another tactic. "Do you see Clay?"
"No," Bernie admitted, tongue darting out to wet his parched lips. "Not at present."
"Clay's dead," Dave said. "He's gone."
"No." The stooped and frail Bernie shook his head. "No, he's not."
Lights out early the entire week after an execution. Dave stretched across his cot fighting for sleep--drifting toward oblivion, jolting awake.
Even now, a full decade after his crime, he still dreamed of that night. It had been an accident, a gruesome and horrible mistake, but it had also been an election year. The judge had used the high-profile case to his own advantage, making an example out of Dave, letting voters know that prestige did not buy one a lighter sentence.
And Dave was okay with that. He felt he was where he needed to be. Freedom, in his mind, promised substantial guilt--a razorblade slicing away at his already troubled mind. Just the idea of walking through the streets of downtown, or having coffee in one of the many cafés along Blanche Street, made him feel like the worst kind of thief.
How could he even think of enjoying anything after killing his wife and . . . and . . . the others?
Yes, there were others.
It had been a mistake, but wholly avoidable had he just been a little more careful.
Dave groaned again, his stomach churning. The ache. Some nights it came hard, a tidal wave of grief eating away at him until he vomited blood. Sometimes, the ulcer his deed had wrought sent him straight to the infirmary. He thought tonight would be one of those times.
He rolled to his side, about to call for the guards when he noticed Bernie Dobson across the block. Bernie was awake, sitting on his cot. Moonlight illuminated his haggard and aging face, but his eyes sparkled. Either he was crying or laughing. On the row, the line between good cheer and utter despair is thin and can change within seconds.
Either way, Bernie appeared to be talking to himself--talking or praying. Dave guessed it was likely the former. Bernie did pray, but silently and always just before bed.
It was a shame. Bernie had been on the row longer than anyone. His crime was so old that most inmates didn't always remember what he'd done. Dave wondered if Bernie even remembered the barroom brawl that had ended with three dead. Obviously, he was slipping--his mind becoming as frail and withered as his body.
Corbin Stainer, who had been on the row almost as long as Bernie, was also awake. Dave only need crane his neck over the edge of his cot to see Corbin sitting on the concrete floor of his cell--legs spread like a child preparing to roll a ball, but it wasn't a ball that he rolled. It was a single blue marble.
Dave called for the guards.
"A Nor'easter," Nurse Jack said. "It blew in like predicted. Snow up to the doors."
Dave lay on the gurney staring at the overhead bulb. Even here, in the infirmary, there was no real light. Everything shone yellow like rusted silk. He watched as Nurse Jack tapped the syringe, eyes squinting at the liquid inside.
"That execution was a hell of a thing last night," Jack said.
Dave nodded. "What did he do? Clay, I mean . . . what was his crime? He would never say."
Jack shrugged and leaned over Dave, sliding the needle beneath the skin of his arm. "That ulcer, if it gets much worse, you may have to be escorted to County Hospital. Not in this weather, understand, but when the snow clears up."
Dave nodded. He liked the infirmary. It was easy enough, in the wee hours, resting in a room without bars, to imagine that it had never happened.
He could wile away the night with Jack and pretend that he had never burned people to death.
It had started with the bankruptcy, his firm . . . his partner, the pressure. Oh, God, the pressure had been . . . had been like what? Like a knife in his gut? Yes, a blade that spared him nothing in daylight hours. Later, it had even taken his sleep. No relief. No money. No time. The mortgage was due, always due. But Madeline wasn't supposed to be there. She'd had plans to visit her mother that weekend. He was going to a law conference in the neighboring city of Tula.
Driving back home in the middle of the night--no witnesses. The rain . . . so much rain. Even now he could see clearly the deluge from that long ago night, rendering his windshield wipers useless. He could recall his heartbeat--the way it had kept time with the music from the car radio. In an effort to sooth his inner-workings, he'd sought out the easy-listening stations. Yes, he could remember it now, pushing the button over and over again. Seek. Scan. Seek. Scan.
. . . entering the back door of his dark and locked-down house--a place right out of Better Homes and Gardens--turning on the stove, blowing out the pilot light. Standing near the sliding door, just off the kitchen, lighting newspapers. Tossing them toward the stove. The moment, the terrifying moment, when he thought it wouldn't work.
Then arching flames. Potholders hanging on the cabinet next to the stove catching first and then . . . then the explosion.
Why hadn't she gone to her mother's?
His grieving mother-in-law on the stand: "My daughter had no intention of visiting me that weekend," she sobbed.
There was more, of course, but he couldn't think about any of that now. The morphine was taking hold. He'd still be good for light conversation, but no thinking. Couldn't think . . .
"Madeline," he whispered.
"Again with the Madeline." Nurse Jack's voice. "My, what wealthy housewives can get up to in the afternoons. Who knew?"
Madeline in the basement with his law partner, a sneaky man who had opted out of the conference. Madeline and his partner with another woman, a working girl at that.
"You saw them together and you flew into a rage, isn't that right Mr. Spool?" The Prosecuting Attorney.
"Never fucking saw them. Never saw them. Never fucking knew."
"Simmer down." Nurse Jack's voice. "You're half killing yourself tonight."
As if Dave were seeing everything through a kaleidoscope, the infirmary faded, came back and then twisted.
"What's happening?" He didn't recognize his own sluggish voice--a record playing at the wrong speed.
A doctor stood over him, pressing on his chest.
Dave lifted his head, but the infirmary had gone dark. Despite this, he knew it was close to morning. Prison did that to a man, gave him an internal time clock--issued it right along with his orange jumper. It seemed only fitting that lock-down punishment should offer such a taunting gift. A man always knew what time it was, sure, but when all he had was time, it seemed a cruel and ironic offering.
He tried to turn on his side, but found himself stifled, bound. No, he wasn't bound, exactly. He simply didn't have room to move.
Where am I?
This was not the gurney. Dave Spool was resting on cold steel, trapped inside a space only slightly larger than his torso.
He opened his mouth to scream; nothing came out.
Then everything changed. He began to travel as if disappearing down the length of his own silent scream. As he moved, seeming to float, the space around him widened until he no longer felt cramped--Dave Spool, a weightless and perfect bird.
Yes, the ulcer had certainly taken him . . . was taking him on a journey. He found himself back in his cell.
He glanced across the block. Bernie Dodson gripped the bars, speaking in Dave's direction, but the words . . . he couldn't hear the words. He glanced down the block. Corbin Stainer held a single blue marble. He poked it through the bars like an offering.
The scene kept changing.
Sometimes, he was in his cell.
Other times, still trapped in the drawer.
A shift. The kaleidoscope again. This time its prisms expanded, opening to snowflakes and then snowdrifts. He was outside the prison, the nor'easter rendering everything white and clean. Madeline, wrapped in a large trench coat, stood on the highest embankment. In the sky above her were these words:
The letters shone purple against the black sky, like night bleeding into day.
He forgave her.
Likewise, he was forgiven.
No language required for this realization.
Later still . . .
He sat on the floor of his cell coaxing a blue marble across the cement. There were more than nine men on the row now. Why had he never seen them before? For a moment, a very brief moment, he was struck by the sheer numbers--every cell occupied.
Then it seemed commonplace--not just the full house, but the row itself, as if it had always been there, as if he had always been on it. He'd never been a child, had never been an attorney. No Madeline. No crime. No yesterdays. And tomorrow . . . no such thing as tomorrow.
When Clay Heinlich appeared in his old cell, it seemed as natural as the air, as preordained as the sun in all its time-honored functions.
The marble rolled. It skirted. Those who had passed out of the world--along with those in the know--played the game, sitting like children on the cement floor of their cells. Those who didn't know never even noticed the activity.
It was a monotonous way to pass the hours, but the men were familiar with monotony and accustomed to routine, and as for time . . . it wasn't an issue. Men on death row have nothing but time.