The Last Good Hour
Most people have a morbid curiosity about their own death. Will I be old, or young? Will I have pain? Where will I be when it happens? The biggest question of course, is when will I die? Almost no one knows the answer to that question, and it is a great source of fear and trepidation for many people. But that isn’t the case for everyone. Some people not only know exactly how they’re going to die, but when it will happen…exactly.
Ninety one square feet isn’t much of a world, but it’s all he had left. Seven feet wide and thirteen feet long with a narrow cot along one side and a stainless steel sink and toilet against the back wall. He had one small shelf, 36 inches wide and 10 inches deep. The shelf had two photos, one of his mother and the other was a panoramic view of the wilderness taken from the deck of a lookout tower in central Idaho. The other items were deodorant, toothpaste and toothbrush, a set of pens and pencils, a notebook, and a Holy Bible. Everything else had been given away. He sat on his bunk listening to the quiet ambient sound the building made. He imagined it was similar to the dull roar a large spaceship might make, like the sound the USS Enterprise made on the television series, Star Trek.He knew every dimple of the gray paint that covered the walls, every wear mark he’d made on the heavy steel cell door over the years. One time he spent several hours a day for a week physically touching every inch of the inside of his cell, every inch. He had marked it.
There had been plenty of time for deep thinking, plenty of it. The things he recalled weren’t always the big things. He rarely thought about the milestones in his life, instead he remembered things that at the time they occurred seemed insignificant. He remembered picking and eating the sweetest plum he’d ever had one crisp fall day, the smell of wood smoke lingering in the country air. He remembered standing on a railroad bridge, his bare feet in the narrow strip of shade created by a girder to keep them from burning on the hot railroad ties. He remembered a series of tunnels that led to a secret room, the entire structure carefully constructed from hay bales. Inevitably, if he lingered on memories long enough, his mind always drifted back to that night. When that happened he got up and he paced the tiny room, counting his steps heel to toe, “one, two, three, four….601, 602…” then he would drop to the floor and do countless pushups and situps in an effort to get his mind into the nothing.
In the beginning it was hard knowing the date, the hour, the exact way that it was going to happen. Then, when the appeal process began, that date changed multiple times, like moving the day that he would step in front of a locomotive over and over. When the appeals finally ran out it was a relief in many ways. Taking all hope away from a man affects each person differently, he felt settled. There were no more papers or words or stalling. At first he felt ready, he almost had a sense of bravado, let’s do this. Then, as the days turned into weeks, the weeks to months, and the months to years, his feelings changed. He realized everyone has a last day, nobody escapes destiny. He wondered if perhaps he was lucky because he knew exactly when and how his date would arrive. He wouldn’t be waiting in line at a movie theater when sudden sharp pains shot through his chest and arm, he wouldn’t be upside down in a ravine somewhere with his burning vehicle closing in all around him. No, he would be strapped to a padded vinyl table in a Christ-like pose, surrounded by prison officials and medical professionals. He’d feel a little prick in the crook of his elbow and a few minutes later the earthly chapter of his life would be over.
The last week was strange. Why not do it now, he wondered? Why 120 more hours, or 97 more hours…or any more hours? Why had a certain date been chosen, it made no sense to him. There was no fear associated, just a bizarre sense of absurdity. No, you have to die on Friday, Tuesday is way too soon. One afternoon they came in and asked him a strange series of questions, did he want a priest, did he have any last words, what did he want as a last meal? It felt strange worrying about what he wanted to eat an hour before he was going to die.
They came in early that last morning and took him to the showers. He was all alone and they let him stay longer than normal. He scrubbed and scrubbed and then stood with the water as hot as it would go pounding onto the back of his head and neck. He closed his eyes and imagined that he was in the shower at his home the morning before everything happened. If he’d known then what he knew now, he’d have never gotten out of the shower. He would have stayed in until there was no hot water left. Then he’d have gone out and watched television, maybe he’d have made a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup, they were his favorites. That’s not what he did.
The guard watched him as he went about his routine. They were all deeply concerned that he might do something stupid, might kill himself before they got the opportunity to. He fought back a laugh thinking about what the warden would tell the press. “We were watching him so carefully, we really don’t have an explanation for his untimely death, such a tragedy that he died now, a Tuesday, when he should have died on Friday. Why do people make these awful decisions?” He shaved, and brushed his teeth and then combed his hair. After he was done he looked in the mirror, really looked at himself for the first time in a long time. He was older, his skin ghostly pale from lack of sunlight, his eyes now surrounded by crows feet.
The hours crawled by. He laid on his bunk and tried to breath calm into his chest. He’d made it clear that he didn’t want to talk to anyone he didn’t absolutely have to. There would be no last words, what could he say? There would be no final dramatic confession, because he had done nothing to confess to. He laid there and he stared at the ceiling that he’d spent years memorizing. He stared at it and he remembered, because memories were really the only thing he had left. A cold winter morning sitting by the wood stove. It was still dark, and the orange light of the fire danced on the living room wall. His mom and dad sat in the kitchen drinking coffee, a halo of bluish fluorescent light around them. Pulling weeds in the garden, big fat drops of water thunking down on the dry earth leaving little brown craters, the smell of the barn hanging in the air. The brilliant flare of a match in the dark night of the river bottom, then the glow of the cherry on the end of a cigarette. And always…always, that night.
Fishing was just an excuse to get out, but the real reward was solitude. Sitting in the dark of the canyon, the water sliding by in front of him like a serpent. The occasional quick splash of a fish the only sound to be heard. The steep mountain on the far side of the river catching the moonlight like a silver veil, revealing just enough detail to make a mystery of what the different shapes were. He sat, pole in hand, only vaguely aware that it was even there, and took the moment in. He tried to mesh into the scene, like he was a part of the landscape that belonged there. It was the last good hour.
The drive home, flashing lights, confusion. Hours of talking, why, where, when…liar. Exhaustion set in, hunger, but it went on anyway. No alibi. Questions, answers, liar. No alibi. Questions, answers, liar. No alibi. And so it went, like a dog chasing its tail, an endless turning of the grist mill in pursuit of a dangled carrot…no alibi. Why should he have an alibi…he’d done nothing wrong.
The guard came in with the last meal and looked at him like he was a mystery. After he was gone and the door was shut he bowed his head and said a quick prayer before eating the single black plum.
The time was short. He did a quick calculation and counted the minutes, and then almost laughed at the ridiculousness of what was left. Shall I play solitaire…or maybe read, I still have 2 hours? He tried not to think of anyone he loved, or any of the moments that only he would remember. Moments that would pass from his consciousness and be lost forever because of their insignificance to anyone but him. People remember big events, births, deaths, events…falling in love, they don’t remember the insignificant things, but he did. Sharing a hot fudge sundae with his mother when he was a preschooler, she was young, willowy, all of life before her. A mountain road in the late fall, the sun setting in the rear view mirror, a big load of firewood in the back of the truck, the smell of gasoline and fresh pine.
When they came in to get him he was reading his Bible. Psalm 118:5 Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered and set me free. They were reverent, quiet, like they were in church, as they went about their jobs. They shackled him hand and foot and led him out. He was not afraid. The entire row was silent, there were no goodbyes, no salutations. There was a man on each arm and a couple were behind him. He could hear their breath, smell their deodorant, sense their apprehension. The clinking of the shackles seemed extra loud in the spit polished hallway and he remembered watching television with his grandma. They sat on the couch under an orange afghan as the ghost of Marley made his chain rattling appearance in, A Christmas Carol. They turned a corner and at the end of the hallway was a brightly lit room. That was his destination. He kept waiting for butterflies, or a wave of panic…or anything. They paused at the door and somebody said something, but he was somewhere else. Looking at an angle through the room he could make out family members on the other side of the thick glass viewing window. They were much older now than they were at the trial.
He laid back, arms spread wide. As they strapped him in he remembered falling backward into a municipal pool one yellow summer afternoon when he was young in that same exact pose. They ate watermelon and drank orange soda that day.
For the longest time they didn’t look at him. When they finally did, he couldn’t decipher the emotions on their faces. He couldn’t tell if they were happy, angry, bitter, or if they were finally getting the justice they’d been after for so long. He closed his eyes and blotted out the hushed mumblings of the room and he thought about justice, fairness. He thought about the victim, he thought about the family staring through the window at him. Maybe fairness and justice had nothing to do with him, and everything to do with them. Maybe that was what this was all about. Maybe his role was to give the family closure even though he was innocent. Maybe he was the perfect surrogate for the real predator…maybe his own death would be enough to heal them and the real predator’s death wouldn’t have been.
He felt the cold swab of cotton wipe the crook of his elbow, thank God they’re being sanitary, and a few seconds later the piercing of the needle and a piece of tape over it to hold it in place, at least it won’t hurt to have it ripped loose… And then a rush of cold in his arm, like someone had plunged it into ice water. He thought of the riverbank that dark night, he pictured it from above.He watched the bats swerving wildly in the moonlight, of Orion’s belt, dim and far away. He watched himself sitting on the riverbank marveling at that simple but massively intricate little universe, the moon beams dancing on the surface of the river, and then he looked up to the heavens and faded like steam into the night.