“It’s going to be a media circus over there! Probably already has a crowd round the place. I best be going Honey,” Fred yelled behind him as he was heading out the front door and looking down at his watch.
His wife came running from the kitchen carrying a paper bag of fruit for him to snack on. “Just be careful,” she said.
Fred stood at the door and looked at his wife for a moment. It struck him how they always saw each other off this way. It was in such contrast to the rest of his world. “I’m always careful, Honey.”
“Driving, I meant.” She smiled back.
“Thank you, Honey. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
They smiled at each other one last time. She stood watching him from the front door as he climbed into the jeep and drove to work.
Fred Allen was a correction officer for the State of Texas. He had worked himself up through the ranks and was now captain of the Tie Down Team. After some 120 executions, it was a job he knew well. He was always very direct yet courteous with the inmates while they were in his care. As he drove to the death house he thought about all the condemned men he had sat with, taken their orders for last meals, and just made sure they were as comfortable as possible. It was all so routine.
He replayed the process from start to finish but that feeling kept creeping in. That odd feeling of sitting with a man and getting to know something about that person, and then walking him out of the holding cell, and taking him to the execution chamber to tie him down. It’s a weird feeling knowing a few minutes later he’s… gone. That’s nonsense Fred. Now stop it. Don’t put those emotions out there. You can’t label them and you can’t figure it out any way so just let it be. You’re a correctional officer damn it. It’s something that the vast majority of the people want done. I do believe in what I do. If I didn’t… if I felt it was ethically wrong, then I wouldn’t participate. They wouldn’t be able to make me participate if I didn’t want to. Besides, if you didn’t do it someone else would… probably someone else not as friendly.
Fred sat up in his seat and took a deep breath. He went through the schedule in his head just to keep his mind occupied. At 2 PM he’s allowed a phone call. At 3 o’clock a visit with his attorney and his spiritual advisor. At 4 o’clock they’ll fingerprint … shortly after that allow them to take a shower. Offer them a choice of black or blue free work clothes. Around 4:30 or 5 o ‘clock whatever was requested for last meal arrives and is served. Ask prisoner if there’s anything else they want. Hell, I remember one guy asked for a doobie. I just chuckled and said, “Well, that’s not going to happen.”
The process: it’s 10 steps from the holding cell to the execution chamber. The guy with the key opens the door. There’s another correction officer behind him and another behind me. There’ll be two in front of the inmate and three officers behind him. I tell em to get up on the gurney and lay his head down on the pillow. As soon as he’s up, there’ll be five of us on em. I’ll go around the gurney to take care of his left leg. The other guys: one will take care of strapping the right arm, the other will take care of the left arm and there’ll be one who stands over the head and shoulders incase the prisoner tries to get back up.
There are two belts across the midsection. Within 20 seconds the inmate is strapped down. I mean, we have it down to a fine art.
Fred really knew how to go through the motions of the procedure, but thinking about the men he had helped put to death had begun to happen more and more. It was getting so that every time he closed his eyes he would see the eyes of the condemned looking right at him. He’d always remember their eyes looking right into him. The lingering thoughts would leave him with a feeling he couldn’t describe. He had been good at stopping his mind at that point not wanting to delve too deeply into that part of his feelings. Sitting alone in the cabin of his jeep, he heard himself sigh and mutter, “…this is getting tiresome.”
Tonight was going to be different than before. Tonight the condemned prisoner was a woman. Fred reminded himself that it makes no difference. Man or woman, the law is the law and she was convicted of brutally killing two people. The media storm was created by her conversion to Christianity and wanting to devote the rest of her life to spreading the gospel. Even the Pope wanted her life spared. Just then, he became aware of the news playing on the car radio.
The voice on the news continued, “People all over the world stand vigil of the approaching execution of Karla Faye Tucker for the 1983 slayings of Jerry Lynn Dean and Deborah Thornton. Pro Capital punishment or not, we are all waiting to learn sometime tomorrow whether Tucker’s latest appeal will be approved by Governor Bush.”
Fred arrived at the death house. Outside, groups of protestors and Capital punishment advocates had already formed. There were radio and television news teams from Huntsville and as far as Dallas and Houston. Fred’s jeep slowed down to a crawl as he approached the gates of the Walls Unit. One hand written sign said “Axe and ye shall receive!” While another proclaimed, “Execution is not a solution.” Opponents of the death penalty was a much smaller group than those who supported Capital punishment, but they both shouted slogans and taunted each other with hostile insults. It crossed Fred’s mind to worry that things wouldn’t get out of hand and turn into a riot. After a couple of minutes he was through the gates.
The death house is a small brick house in the corner of the prison complex. It’s a small building with eight holding cells and a green tiled room where the executions are performed. A window joins it to another room for the witnesses. Most days it’s empty and quiet. Waiting for the next time. Now it was slowly waking up as if from a deep sleep. Fred walked into the holding area and flipped the light switch.
For Captain Allen, it was business as usual… just another day at the job. At least that’s what he kept telling himself over and over again. He had been waiting for the death house to awaken fully from it’s week-long rest. In the meantime, he busied himself with getting things out of the supply closet. He pulled out several versions of the bible, a box of Kleenex and placed them on the table against the wall just outside the execution chamber. Joel, was the next correction officer to arrive.
They brought her in just before midnight. She had been flown in from the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville. Her number was 777 and she was scheduled to be executed the following day at 6 in the evening.
She had been waiting in prison 13 years for this date and now it was finally here. Karla was a petite, curly-haired 23-year old when she committed the murders. She had snuck into an apartment with an accomplice to steel a bunch of motorcycle parts and ended up hacking two people to death with a pick ax. One victim she knew. They had been friends. The other was a total stranger. Karla knew what she had done and accepted the consequences but it still seemed a whole life-time away. More than that , it seemed like somebody else committed the crime… somebody under the influence of drugs, alcohol and a life of excess and despair all blended together. She had asked for a retrial and had made appeals but they were all denied. She wanted to live if for no other reason than to warn other young adults to stay away from drugs and too much alcohol; to choose friends wisely; hang – out with the right crowd; and strive to live in accordance to God’s will.
Karla was shown to her holding cell next to the execution chamber. The officer locked the gate. She sat quietly on the edge of the bed and took deep breaths. She closed her eyes and opened them a few times as if hoping she would find herself in some different place when she opened her eyes again. A few moments later, she heard somebody step infront of her cell. She looked up and saw Fred Allen. He was wearing his Captain’s uniform. She liked him immediately. He looked kind.
“Hello Mrs. Griffith. I’m Captain Allen. I’m going to be taking care of you today.”
She smiled. “Hello Captain Allen. Please call me Karla.”
“Okay Karla. It’s early in the day, but I wanted to tell you everything that’s going to happen, answer any questions you might have, and, if you want anything, let me know what it is and I’ll do my best to get it for you.”
Karla smiled and shook her head.
Mr. Baggett – the Warden looked more like he’d be the CEO of a fast food corporation rather than someone who ran and prison and over saw executions. He was sitting at his desk staring at the mountain of paper work on his desk. For some reason he was thinking back to the first time he oversaw his first execution and how it didn’t go smoothly. The medical person had such a difficult time finding the vein in one arm that they decided to just go with one lines instead of two. When the executioner started to administer the first drug the pressure popped the tube out and it had to be reinserted. That was several hundred executions ago.
He looks up at the oversized clock in his office. It reads five minutes to six. He gets up, puts on his jacket, and walks over to the death house.
The Warden enters the death house and picks up the phone. “Did we hear from the governor’s office and the attorney general?” The supervisor on the other end of the phone confirms that it’s okay to go ahead with the execution. The Warden hangs up the phone and walks back to the holding area. “Karla Faye Tucker, #777…”
Karla stood up from the bed hoping against hope that the Warden was going to say that the Governor granted a 30 – day reprieve. The Warden just looked at her a moment. She saw it in his eyes. He genuinely felt bad for her. “…the Supreme Court turned down your request for a stay of execution. The Governor denied your request as well. The execution is to proceed.” He paused for a moment, “It’s time for you to come with me to the next room. “
Karla held her breath. She couldn’t believe the time had finally arrived. Suddenly the sounds of the foot steps against the glossy cement floor seem louder and more aggressive. Everybody seems to spring into motion as the hostile rattling sound of the holding cell being unlocked seems to call for her as if repeating the Warden’s command. Her instinct is to resist the pull, but she knows that there are several officers close by ready to move her is she isn’t compliant. She forces her feet to step forward. Though the chamber is a mere 10 paces away she wonders if she’ll make it. A moan escapes from somewhere deep inside her throat.
Karla begins to feel like her head’s detached from her body which seems to grow heavier with every step forward. As she is led into the green painted brick room she feels a unpleasant tingle shoot up her spine. The two men in front of her go to the foot of the gurney. The gurney, padded with a thick white cushion, nearly takes up the whole room. Karla immediately begins to feel claustrophobic. The tightness in her chest seems almost unbearable. All the men.. the tie down crew are so much taller and larger than her. There are arm rest jutting out from the gurney almost like a crucifix. There are so many unbuckled brown leather straps. She wonders why there are so many and tries to count them but her mind is racing and can’t focus. She hears somebody call her name. The voice is asking her to climb on top of the gurney.
Before she knew it, she was on the gurney. The man behind her gently pushed her shoulders down so that her head rested on the pillow. At the same time, two other men extended her left and right arms and held them against the padded arm rest. She quickly felt the pressure tightening all around her body as she was strapped down. Her body become pressed into the padding.
For a moment she imagined the sharp pain of metal spikes being hammered into the right palm of her head. She turns her head to look but there’s nothing there only her right arm outstretched and strapped in place. She looks up at the ceiling and notices a microphone attached to a long silver gooseneck branch that can be moved in different directions. and a black shoebox sized camera or light or something pointing down at her. She senses the tie down crew leave to make room for the Warden and the Chaplain. She looks at the digital wall clock at the foot of the bed just high enough for her to see over the Chaplain. The Chaplain says something to her but she can’t understand what he’s saying. There’s a loud throbbing in her ears. She senses the Warden standing over her. Her lips feel parched. She hears herself ask for some water, but no one seems to pay attention to her request. Then, slowly, as if emerging from underwater, she begins to understand the Chaplain. He’s asking if he can hold onto her leg. She struggles to sit up but can’t. She shakes her head “yes.” A sensation of comfort and reassurance takes over as the Chaplain caresses her left knee. It feels tender and compassionate. She takes a deep breath.
She feels a stinging sensations in her right arm. She turns to look. The medical technician has just inserted an IV into a vein. She sees her blood from the wound and begins feeling weak and dizzy. The straps no longer feel so much binding as they do supportive. Another stick as she feels the back up tube being inserted into her left arm. The medical technician, having installed the two tubes into her arm, quickly leaves the room.
The Warden asks if she wants to say any last words. She says, “Yes, there are…” She swallows hard. Her mouth feeling bone dry, she continues, “…is just a little something I’d like to say if I may.”
Somebody straightened the gooseneck so that the microphone was closer. Karla lifted her head off the pillow as much as she could and saw the light go dim in the green room as lights seemed to be raised in the witness rooms. She could make out some of the faces through the glass. She was grateful for that. It made her feel less alone at a time when she felt the most alone and isolated. She rolled her eyes as far back as she could trying to get the Warden’s attention. Warden Baggett saw this and moved more to her left side so she could make eye contact with him. Their eyes made contact and she could see the pity in his eyes. It gave her strength to talk.
“Yes sir, I would like to say to all of you.” She raised her head off the pillow as much as she could manage. “The Thornton family and Jerry Dean’s family – I’m so so sorry. I hope God will give you peace with this.” Her eyes looked through the glass and into the witness rooms until she found her husband. She looked purposefully at him with all her might. She could see him. He was holding hands with her victim’s brother with one hand and holding a bible with the other. His eyes were red and puffy but strong and full of resolve. “Baby, I love you.” She then looked at Ron – the brother of the young lady she had killed 14 years ago. “Ron, give Peggy a hug for me.” Her gaze grew wider as she tried to take in all those who stood in attendance for her. Her eyes filled with tears and she took in a deep breath. “Everybody has been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I am going to be face to face with Jesus soon.” She pulled her head back a bit and looked at the Warden. “Warden Baggett, thank all of you so much. You have been so good to me. I love all of you very much.” She then looked around trying to address every one present. “I will see you all when you get to Heaven. I will wait for you. Each and every one of you.” Her lips pressed tightly together in an expression that was at once a smile and a frown. She looked at the Warden as if to say she was ready to go.
Warden Baggett took off his glasses to signal to the executioner to administer the first drug. The fluid began its inexorable journey through the tube and into Karla’s right arm. The Warden watched as the first drug – sodium pentathol, flowed along slowly. He wondered, as he often did, whether what they were doing was right. He knew only knew two things: it’s a question he would never find an answer for and he knew he would be thinking about it for the rest of his life. He watched as the chemical connected with it’s target. Karla pressed her head back into the pillow as she felt the drug enter her body. She slowly closed her eyes and praised Jesus Christ. She then opened her eyes and they remained open until her heart stopped beating.
Fred was back at the holding cell with Karla. He looked at his watch. It was now about 2 in the afternoon. “Here’s the list of the witness you invited,” he said as he slid the paper through the bars. “All of em will be here.”
“So, we’re going through with the execution?” Karla asked.
“Well, insofar as we know. Just before 6 o’clock, the Warden will make a phone call to make sure nothing has changed. If something happens before then we’ll certainly let you know.” The last comment sounded cold to Fred. He added, “I do know that the Governor’s office has been flooded with phone calls and faxes on your behalf.” Fred took a small pad of paper from a near by table and got ready to write. He looked like a waiter might do at a restaurant. “Do you know what you want for your last meal?”
“I would like to have a banana, a peach, and just a small garden salad…”
“What kind of dressing you want on it?” Asked Fred.
“Anything to drink?”
Karla just sat on the edge of the bed. The prison chaplain sat quietly across from her. A few moments passed and then he asked her, “What are you thinking about Karla Faye?”
“I’m wondering what it’s like in heaven. I’m thinking of my family… my friends, the pain I’ve caused. I’m wondering what it will be like to die.” She looked up at the Chaplain. “Will you stay with me until I’m gone?”
“Yes. I will. I want to remind you that God is present with us now. With your permission Karla, I’ll put my hand on your knee so that you will know I’m there even as you fall asleep.”
“Do you truly believe in redemption? I mean, I guess what it is I’m asking is will I be accepted into heaven? Will my death ease their pain?
The chaplain gave her a red covered King James version of the bible. She accepted it from him and held onto to it tightly. The chaplain considered her questions carefully and then answered. “We tend to think of those who commit crimes as somehow different from us… alien to us… unknowable. In the eyes of God, we are all sinners. I know that I am not blameless for the deeds of criminals. In a sense, we are all son of Cain and we can not disassociate ourselves from him because he killed his brother simply because it makes us feel more comfortable. We can not separate the just from the unjust and the good from the wicked. That is why Jesus died on the cross….to redeem all of humanity.”
“I knew you were going to say something like that.”
They both smiled.
Chaplain Brazzill dug deeper. “Perhaps, we have this law in some states because it’s our way of keeping that aspect of our nature squashed to the ground so we don’t have to face it in ourselves… as petty as that might sound. Ironically, I think we’re talking about the very thing that keeps us from evolving. “
She asked another question, “ Why does God allow Capital punishment?”
“Hmm… I knew you were going to ask something like that. I don’t know the answer. God has created so much. I do believe there is a purpose why God allows things to happen… that there is a reason for it… that we’re supposed to learn and struggle to find the answers our self. Imagine the father who, having raised his children, standing back to let them decide for them self and put effort into using their own wisdom. That is how I understand God allowing humanity to do what it does.
“I am reminding myself that death is as natural as breathing, and that all of us have to meet it sometime. I feel myself struggling against the will and hope to live past this day and to go home to God.
Fred had listened to some of her questions and the Chaplain’s answers. He didn’t want to interrupt, but he had to. They had to stay on schedule. He took Karla’s fingerprints and told her she could take a shower and dress in free work clothes. Afterwards, she invited him to sit her and the chaplain as she ate her last meal. She finished and her tray was taken away. She looked at Fred and said, “Thank you Captain Allen for everything you’ve done.”
Fred looked taken aback for a moment. He then shook his head. “You’re welcome mame.” He thought about the fact he had to strap her down to the gurney in about an hour. He felt uncomfortable.
The Warden came in and said that all appeals had been rejected. He then called her name and asked her to join him in the other room. Fred could feel the anxiety and fear from Karla as she walked passed him. In contrast, her expression was calm and she continued to be polite to everyone. Fred began going over his mental checklist.
The caravan formed quickly just outside the cell where Karla had spent the last several hours of her life. Two officers, one of them was Fred, in front of the prisoner and three behind her. Behind them was the chaplain and the Warden. Fred walked over to Karla and told her she couldn’t carry the bible into the next room. She surrendered it over to him and he handed it to the last member of the tie-down team who placed it on one of the tables against the wall. A few steps later and the caravan reached its final destination.
The front officer opened the door to the execution chamber. It was a heavy metal door. It swung open and the caravan filed in. Fred turned to instruct Karla to climb up on the gurney, but he just turned to look at her. She climbed up on the gurney and was strapped in place very quickly… less than a minute. The tie-down team left the chamber and the chaplain and warden entered the room. The door was closed. Captain Allen stood with his back against the wall just outside the closed door. About 10 minutes later the procedure was finished and the door was opened again. Fred turned around to go inside. Karla’s body laid lifeless on the gurney. Her eyes open and fixed upward towards the ceiling. A strange feeling fell over Fred. He had gotten to a good sense of this person before her execution. Her body was there, but he knew she had gone… only a lifeless shell remained. Fred went through the routine of unbuckling the straps; transferring the body of the newly deceased onto the transportation gurney for the funeral home; and putting everything away.
The next thing Fred noticed was how quickly the place emptied out. In just a matter of a few minutes all but him and another member of the tie-down team had left. Nothing unusual about that. Wearing latex gloves, Fred began coiling the tubing that is used to administer the drugs. He detached them from the metal spigots that joined the execution chamber to the room where the actual executioner sat and administered each drug one at a time. He took the tubing to a large industrial sink, filled it about half way with warm soapy water and let them soak for a bit. Fred could hear the other officer lock up the supply closet. He then heard the door open and close. Was he alone in the death house now as he was at the beginning of his workday?
Fred walked down the corridor with the 8 empty holding cells. He got to the end of the hall where the execution chamber was and turned around. He noticed the red King James Version of the bible, the one Karla had been holding in her cell, sitting by itself on the one of the tables against the wall. The other guy must’ve forgot to put it away with the other bibles. He walked past the 8 empty cells again, picked up the bible, and headed for the supply cabinet. As he passed he cell closets to the execution chamber he thought he noticed someone sitting on the edge of the bed. He thought he saw Karla with her eyes open wide out of the corner of his peripheral vision. It startled him and he spun around quickly. The red bible dropped to the cement floor with a smack that echoed. Fred’s eyes were wide open with a kind of startled fear. The cell was empty, but the bed did look like someone had recently sat on it as indeed someone had sat there less than an hour ago. Fred began to perspire. His heart started pounding in his chest. He took a deep breath. He bent over to pick the bible off the floor. He walked into the adjoining closet, opened the supply cabinet and put the bible with the others. Suddenly, he heard the soft sounds of two coughs. He turned around and walked out into the empty corridor. The large heavy metal door to the green brick chamber was still open. The drapes and blinds that covered the windows between the execution chamber and the witness rooms were drawn back. He should close them. As he crossed the threshold from the corridor into the green brick room he heard a moan whisper as if floating from the chamber and back to the holding cell. This unnerved him. He was really sweating now. A dreadful feeling came over him as he stood in the execution chamber. He felt a chill down his spine and stomach felt all tied up in knots. He blinked and saw the reflection of eyes in the dark windows. They were the eyes of the condemned prisoners he had met. To hell with closing the blinds and drapes he thought. He backed out of the execution chamber and closed the door. The door slammed itself shut sounding like the sealing of an ancient tomb. The sound echoed as it bounced off the death house walls, but he sensed he was not alone. He turned around and, for a moment, like flashes of pictures during a slide show, saw each of the holding cells occupied by the very people he helped put to death. One right after another, they were just standing there with their eyes big and looking at him. Fred felt overwhelmed. He forgot about the rest of his lock down duties. He left the building, locked the front door, got in his jeep, and drove home.
Fred didn’t mention anything to his wife when he got home. She had supper read for him but he wasn’t hungry. He went straight to bed. A couple of days later everything seemed back to normal. Fred was in the backyard. He converted their garage into a woodworking shop. He was trying to forget that feeling he had right after the execution. He wanted to forget the visions he had. My god the visions of all of those forgotten prisoners! Where did that come from?! Everybody has to deal with presiding over all these executions in their own way. Working in the shop was his way of coping. The radio was on playing some classic rock when the news started repeating the Karla Faye execution. Fred didn’t turn the channel or turn off the radio. He did try to tune it out but it was useless.
The newsman had a touch of petulance to his voice:
“Saying, ‘I love all of you very much’ and smiling as lethal chemicals were pumped into her body, Karla Faye Tucker was executed tonight in Texas, becoming the first woman put to death by the state since the Civil War. The execution ended a case that attracted an extraordinary amount of attention around the world and led a fierce debate about redemption on death row. The prospect of executing a woman clearly exposed a societal raw nerve, but it also prompted many death-penalty supporters to insist that Ms. Tucker had gained underserved sympathy because of her sex and her doey-eyed good looks.
Ms. Tucker, 38, who murdered two people with a pickax in Houston 15 years ago, came to be known recently through relentless media coverage of her death row interviews, as a soft-spoken, gentle-looking, born-again Christian pleading for mercy.”
Fred tried to work at his bench and ignore the newscast, but he couldn’t help listening to it. He also noticed that it was 6:24 in the evening… about the time he escorted Karla to the room. He felt hot and began perspiring. He began to feel like he did that night alone in the execution chamber except now it was worse. He began shaking. The chisel fell from his hand. He couldn’t even hold any of his tools. The shaking got pretty bad and he had difficulty catching his breath. He was overcome with such incredible sadness. It was like a combination of your heart breaking into a million pieces and coming down with pneumonia. His eyes watered up and he started crying. He left his wood shop and walked back into the house.
His wife must’ve heard the back door swing open and close for she called out after him, “Honey, supper’ll be ready soon.” Fred was still shaking and sobbing. His wife could hear his sobbing all the way from the kitchen. She went into the hall way which ran through the center of the house and saw him leaning against the wall crying like a baby. “Honey, what’s wrong with you?” At first she thought something must’ve happened to him in the wood shop, but this seemed like some kind of emotional melt down. She approached him slowly and placed her hand on his shoulder, which heaved up and down as he alternately shook and cried. “I don’t know. I’ve gotta talk to somebody. I mean, this is hurting…this is hurting real bad.”
“What’s this about Honey. Talk to me.” His wife pleaded with him.
Fred looked up at her. She had never seen him like this before and it scared her. The look in his eyes stabbed at her. He seemed so crushed. “Can you call Carroll and ask him to come over?”
“Chaplain Pickett?” She asked.
“Yes, please. Tell him I really need to talk to somebody.”
She didn’t want to leave him alone in the hallway. She walked away carefully and grabbed the phone on a nearby table and dialed the number. Fred just piled himself against the hallway wall and continued crying.
Reverend Carroll and Fred sat on the front porch kitty corner from each other. They sat close to each other so close that their knees almost touched. They were both hunched forward. Fred had a wad of Kleenex in his hand. He had been crying for a long time. His eyes were read and puffy and his breathing still seemed labored. Carroll put his hand on one of Fred’s knees. “What’s wrong Fred?”
Fred looked up at him, “I ain’t doing it no more. That’s it. I’m done. That’s it. I can’t go back there any more.”
“You know its tough Fred. I walked with and stood by and witnessed the execution of 95 inmates. In the beginning, everybody was a name, but s t got on they just started doing it bam bam bam. The names turned into numbers. You do 3 a year? That’s one thing. You do 35 a year? That’s a lot. Fred, you’re only human and you have a good heart.”
Carroll, I’ve looked so many of them straight in the eye and told ‘em what’s what. They would ask me and I’d tell ‘em. But you know, ya spend hours with ‘em. You look them in the eye. You’re with them all the way up to strapping ‘em down. It’s the last time I’m going to see ‘em with his eyes open. After the execution is done…the process went it’s course…they call the doctor in and pronounces the death…every body leaves… well, my job begins again. I have to go back in there. That’s also kind of difficult. Because you sit with this individual 8 or 10 hours…all day long, and now the last thing you’re doing with that person is removing those straps and sliding ‘em onto another gurney for the funeral home. And these are healthy people who would otherwise have an entire life time ahead of them.”
“When did all this come to a head? Was it Karla Faye”
“Yes. I don’t know why now, but I think this has been building up for some time. I mean, you don’t think about none of this while you’re doing it. You don’t put those emotions out there. You’re afraid to, right? I remember one thing so vividly. It was an hour before and I was there with chaplain Brazzil. She looked up at me and says, ‘Thank you Captain Allen for everything you’ve done.’ I shook my head and said, “You’re welcome.’ You know. I mean, what else am I supposed to say…’I’m getting ready to strap you down in another hour.’ Everything went as it was supposed to. I was the last one cleaning up and I began hallucinating or some thing. I mean it was bad.” Fred’s voice cracked and he began crying again. “Where are all these tears coming from?! I thought I’d all be cried out by now.”
Carroll put his arms around Fred as he continued crying. After a moment, he calmed down a bit. “I just know I can’t do this no more. Not one more time. I don’t even want to go back there.”
“Fred, if you quit now you’ll lose your pension. All of it.
“You know Carroll. I’m a law abiding citizen. I always believed, if executions was the law then I was going to make certain it was done professionally with integrity and honor. And I was pro Capital punishment, but now, after this…uh, huh, no more…after all this, no sir.” Fred leaned back far enough to make good eye contact with Carroll. There were so many unanswered questions and yet Fred knew he finally came to know one absolute truth and he said it to his friend, “Nobody has a right to take another life; and I don’t care if it’s the law. And it’s so easy to change the law.” Fred wiped his eyes clean, waded up the Kleenex and threw it into the trashcan next to him. “Why do we want it so much?! It’s all murder.”
Sometime later, Fred got up in the middle of the night and went to the bathroom to take a piss. He did his business and went to wash his hands in the sink. He stopped in his tracks. Pushed down into the sink was a white towel like a huge white beach towel. One end of it was stuffed into the drain and the remainder of it hung out over the sink and onto the floor. It was twisted, soaking wet, and smelled of mildew. Over all it didn’t look too good. What was it for? What did it mean? Did his wife put it there for some reason? Was it another hallucination of some kind? He reached over to touch it. It felt real enough. It was cold and wet. He thought it was gross. He didn’t want to touch it again. He decided to go back to bed. Maybe in the morning it wouldn’t be there.
Sometime later, Carroll Pickett and Fred drove out to the place where Karla Faye was buried. Earlier that day they had driven together to be guests on a radio show to talk about what it’s like to carry out the state’s executions. They were able to talk about their experiences without getting too upset. Well, at least Carroll was. Fred still had trouble talking about it. This was the first time he talked about it in public. The two men stood for a few moments in silence over Karla’s gravestone. “So, you like your new job now Fred?”
“Oh, yeah! A lot better.”
“It’s a world away, huh? Being a carpenter?”
“Yeah, I feel good about myself. I haven’t’ felt that way for a long time.”
“Live your dash.”
Fred didn’t understand what he was talking about now. “What do you mean dash? Whaddya talk’n about dash?”
Carroll pointed down at the grave. “It’s on your tombstone.”
Fred looked down at Karla’s tombstone. He saw her name and he saw the date she was born and the date she died. Between the two was a dash.
Carroll continued, “See? You got that little dash in the middle. That’s your life right there. That’s everything between the moment you’re born to the time you die.” Carroll turned to Fred and smiled, “How are you going to live your dash?”
For a long time after that afternoon, Fred would remember what Carroll said about living your dash. He thought of it often. One Sunday afternoon, after a good week of working in his woodshop, Fred sat on the bench gently swinging back and forth on his front patio. The same place where Carroll and he had sat that evening so long ago. That’s where I am now, he thought. I’m going to live my dash and make sure that everything I do is right for me, my family, and everybody that I know. He made a silent promise: never again will I betray myself. What Fred Allen thinks about Fred Allen is more important than anything.
Fred smiled, sat quietly, and looked at the nature around him. He had been in his front yard so many times before and he felt as though he was experiencing the place for the first time. He noticed the birds, the flowers, and the different kinds of trees that filled his view. It struck him that whole families of ducks would waddle across his yard and that dozens of Hummingbirds would buzz over to suckle on the flower blossoms that seemed to be springing up everywhere. There were so many. Life was abundant and so were the possibilities. There was a soft language being spoken by nature and he was beginning to listen to it.
John D McMahon is a writer, painter, graphic designer, multimedia producer, and composer. As a graduate of both USC’s School of Cinema-Television and Thornton’s School of Music, he believes that the best way to know a thing is through the discipline of something else. He has written feature articles for many domestic and international publications including contributing chapters on a distance-learning course in screenplay writing. He has ghost written for NBC’s Santa Barbara, Hercules, and Xena.His unproduced scripts include an historical biography on the 16th Century German astronomer Johannes Kepler. He is currently writing his first novel, Tokyo Joe: An American, developing a 10-hour action drama series for television with international security contractor Jason Macleod, and developing a feature-length documentary, The Numismatist.