A Thousand Words

The last will and testament of Jackie Garland By Billiam Walsh

Scire mori sors prima viris, sed proxima cogi
Man’s first happiness is to know how to die, his second – is to be forced to die.

Before I had left the front yard, carry bag in hand, mother called after me from the porch in her red-crusted nightgown.
“You make sure Jackie is executed right, you hear?”
“Yes, mother.”
When I arrived, the walls spoke in whispers.
There’s a dead man walkin’.
Chains swung loosely from his wrists like a hanging albatross as we walked him down the row.
Each step of wood groaned as we mounted the death machine.
I stood aside and watched Tom tie the noose around his neck and then bag him with a standard black cotton sack. Taking a step back, I gave the final nod to Frank.
And then — SWAK!
The trap doors released but nothing purged the darkness beneath.
That’s what they call a dry run, a dexterous rehearsal in the practice of killing someone.
“Good work, boys,” Frank said.
There’s a dead man walkin’.
It was seven days.
I waited at the chef’s cage while he prepared Jackie’s meal.
On the way back to his cell I picked it just as I did when we were boys. I particularly liked the square potato wedges.
I slid his meal through a small slot in the steel frame like I were feeding a feral animal.
“Thank you,” he said, tongue twirled as always. Good mannered as always.
I nodded, offering a glimpse of my dimples that bordered the skirts of my moustache, and then sat back down in front of his cell while he ate.
“You know how many hours I have left?” he said, mouth full.
“What’s that?” I said.
“I said, you know how many hours I have left?”
I shook my head, “No. No, I don’t.”
“One-hundred and sixty seven hours. That’s right, One hundred and sixty seven hours. And do you know how I know that — I counted them.”
“Well, it’s been seven years coming, Jackie.”
“Yes, it has,” he said. “Yes, it has.”
He stared at me for a long while, while he chewed, his jaw raw with black and grey stubble.
There’s a dead man walkin’.
It was five days.
He had pulled the white linen from his concrete bed and heaved over it in the porcelain as if he were washing out bloodstains.
Back. Forth.
Swoosh. Squelch.
“Why do you bother?” I said.
“Mother always said — a little soap and water never killed anybody.”
Back. Forth.
Swoosh. Squelch.
“She will be damning you when you’re executed.”
“No matter. I killed her a long time ago.”
Back. Forth.
Swoosh. Squelch.
There’s a dead man walkin’.
It was three days.
He stood at the bars, his face deeply pressed against the cold iron, watching me. I wondered what he saw – a piece of himself or an ideology.
“When am I being weighed?”
I now knew what separated us.
It wasn’t the bars.
I was going to live.
He was going to die.
“Today,” I said.
“Do you know what happens if the weight is off?”
You will have been executed right.
“Your neck doesn’t break,” he said. “You hang there, writhing. Death doesn’t take your hand. He watches you as one watches an opera. And then applauds as your body sways with the sound of a rope being pulled taut echoing through the death chamber — Ah! Here come the death squad.”
“It’s time,” I said.
There’s a dead man walkin’.
It was one day.
“You’ve come to ask what I want for my last meal.”
“That’s right,” I said.
“Hmmm, a last meal – don’t they know what I’ve done?”
He rose from his cross-legged position where he had been sitting in front of the east wall.
“Yes,” he continued. “I think I will have a last meal. Are you writing this down?”
I had pencil to paper.
“I would like a fillet steak – medium-rare, eggs – over-easy, hash browns, toast – rye, milk, coffee, juice, butter, and jelly. And. For desert I would like pancakes, strawberries, whipped cream, and chocolate shavings.”
“You’re going to finish all that?”
“Well, if I don’t, you can pick at it like you pick at the rest of my food.”
As I walked off from his cell he called out over my shoulder.
“Don’t take it personally, Gordie. Mother will forgive you.”
Seven years alone in a cage the size of a parking spot, sleeping on a concrete steel bunk, no windows or natural light, alone for twenty-two to twenty-four hours a day. Then death.
A double punishment.
I stepped into the adjacent cell and locked myself in.
Only for a moment.
It was solitary. A dark hole. People walking over the hole. You shout from the bottom, but nobody hears you. The sound of every second ticking by —
Tick.
Tick.
Tick.
Tick.
Tick.
Tick.
Tick.
“Imagine that it were a piece of prose,” he said. “It is only normal to think that once you’ve read it and internalized it that you understand it. But you don’t. For you to understand you would have to read the paragraph over and over again, twenty-four hours a day, for seven years.”
He was right. But it didn’t mean he didn’t deserve it.
There’s a dead man walkin’.
It was seven hours.
All prisoners on the row are given a sense of reprieve, a caged square of natural light, for an hour before their final meal.
“How trivial,” he said.
In his place I paced the confines where cold steel meets warm light and raw concrete splits at the tip of a weed.
I wondered about mother, if she would be pleased that Jackie was executed right.
There’s a dead man walkin’.
It was three hours.
He requested they play ‘Over the Rainbow’ while he ate.
With a Cheshire cat-like grin he considered his final meal, gradually taking it in.
“Isn’t it odd,” he said with his finger in his mouth cleaning his teeth. “That this is what I will be remembered for. This meal.”
“I think you will be remembered for a lot worse, for what you’ve done.”
“And what have you done, Gordie. You’ve put a dog in a cage with a clock is what you’ve done – there is nothing else.”
There’s a dead man walkin’.
It was one hour.
By the time the priest arrived, Jackie had already undressed himself and chucked his clothes and linen onto the concrete slab where he had slept.
“Put your clothes back on,” I said. “Now!”
“Let’s go, let’s go, I’m bored, let’s go,” he yelled as if being guided by a conductor.
“That’s all right,” said Father Markum. “May I sit?”
Their words were short and few.
But before Father Markum left he told Jackie that his body would be cremated and his ashes would be available at Llewellyn’s Funeral home, where they no longer remain.
Mother has them now.
There’s a dead man walkin’.
It was six o’clock.
There are only two aggravating circumstances used by the state to justify the imposition of a death sentence; whether the killing is cold, calculated and premeditated; and, the killing is heinous, atrocious and cruel.
Jackie stood atop the death machine for the last time, quite alone, surrounded by grim-faced murderers with clean hands. I suspect, when he’s gone, they will grasp the emptiness of the closure promised by the retribution of capital punishment.
Noose around his neck.
Standard black cotton sack over his head.
And a bar of soap that I slipped into his underclothing.
“Jackie Garland,” Frank said. “You have been condemned to die by a jury of your peers. You will be hung from the neck until presumed dead. Sentence imposed by a judge in good standing in this state. Do you have anything to say before the sentence is carried out?”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I do. I was visited by a priest.”
Tick.
“He tried and tried and tried to offer forgiveness.”
Tick.
“But I told him it wasn’t necessary.”
Tick.
“I have no misconceptions about why I’m here.”
Tick.
“I’m not going to sugar coat it for you. I deserve to be executed.”
Tick.
“And when my body hangs, writhing in agony.”
Tick.
“I will be a testament to the sentiment of forgiveness.”
Tick.
And then — SWAK!
The rope pulled taut. His neck didn’t break. He hung there just as mother had asked.
I presumed death was watching.
The finale.
A gargling sound.
Silence.
And death’s applause.
He died at approximately six-nineteen on Friday the 13th of December, 1957.
And still the walls whispered.
There’s a dead man walkin’.
After I got in, mother called after me from the oak staircase.
“Did you make sure he was executed right?”
“Yes, mother.”
“Good. At least one of my children know that a little soap and water never killed anybody…”