GOING TO AN EXECUTION
What do I say to him who’s within hours of being injected to his death? I didn’t know, but I kept going. That stop at the Family Dollar Store: a psychological break, a time out. I bought a coin purse. A contrived act of normalcy on a surreal drive.
It was chilly, it was late, it was at the end of the highway, where the road ends and the gravel begins. The prison: an ex-plantation at the crook in the Mississippi River.
Get out of my car and submit. Submit to the pat down. Today there’s extra attention paid to it. And it’s done in a small room off the reception lobby and not in the front gate check-in shack like on the other days when I’m here to interview. Yes, I’m wearing a bra. No, I don’t have any drugs in my body cavities. Oh, Jesus Christ; it’s the idiot who’d try to get a gun in here. They’re triply checking. Nothing allowed to be slipped in to him at the eleventh hour, his eleventh hour.
Lock my car and get into theirs. Four of us squeezed into the prison escort car. We’re all tax-paying, law-abiding, no-felonies-on-record citizens, but one can’t go driving down miles and miles and miles, or across acres and acres and acres of state penitentiary land on one’s own, under one’s own power. Power. This is about power. The power of the state, the body politic.
It was a tight fit -- the four of us legal folks with two guards -- in the escort car. I’m pressed up close to somebody else’s philosophy on life and death. We’re all on our way to Camp D. Are we all thinking alike in here? Nobody talked.
Fifteen minutes -- a smooth ride past rows and rows and rows of life. All kinds of vegetables, tobacco, sugar cane, and cotton. Organized, symmetry, planning, lush, lucious, fecund, productive, orderly.
Bright, warm, happy sunshine. Big milk cows grazing and horses, all kinds of colors, with swishing tails. Tall mules with black muzzles and fuzzy ears in teams of two, pulling drays. Sometimes they’re three abreast and pulling tractors. Once I heard them bray. It sounds more significant here. Everything weighs heavy with significance here.
It’s a natural patchwork quilt of brilliance. Lots of green. Eye popping, beautiful greens. Deep green, light green, fluorescent green, shimmering green. The green-brown lines of trees that create borders around tilled fields. On the far horizon there’s a clump of trees and bushes, but not many more. Vast, expansive, so expansive, huge tracts of land. Open. Got to be able to see far off and away and up close and everything in between. Everything -- animals, men, equipment, -- has to be seen, accounted for, counted, many times during every shift. Endless counting. Head count the prisoners, head count the animals, head count the hoes, head count the shovels.
Two lines of inmates, parallel, with about fifty men per line. Each man has a hoe or a shovel resting on his shoulder. Tools leaning on the diagonal, toward the sky, as they walk along. It could be performance art, but it’s not. Keep it real. Where are they going? They’re going nowhere. The guards on horseback -- two at the head of the column, one in the middle, and two more pulling up the rear. They rest their rifles on their shoulders in the same way the prisoners hold their tools. Nice and easy. Everybody keep moving.
We pass them. I turn back for one more look. Now I’m moving, really zipping down the surreal line, as I compare our movement to theirs. They are 1822 in pace and purpose. Swing that hoe, man. Jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton. Do they know where we’re going? Do they know why we are here? Do they know that experts say the execution cocktail is painless and humane?
Walk into the death house. Small talk amidst the harsh lights of the vending machines along one wall. Blaring advertisements of capital gains, bathed in the invasive glare of florescent lights -- both raining down sad around the table of capital punishment. He had his bible opened and on his lap. Small talk, big thoughts. Hug him goodbye. Don’t cry, don’t break down and cry. Be out at the front gate, for him.
But mostly it was for her. Allyson had told me of the gift of presence. She’d be there -- she was there, her gift to him -- as his eyes closed. She finished the 23rd psalm, just her now, through the glass.
The guard came out of the front gate check-in shack. He took the three steps to the edge of the concrete pedestal the shack sat on.
He stood silent for just a moment. He looked out toward us, in our direction, and then over us. He seemed to be looking into the darkness of the woods beyond the parking lot.
He wore the uniform and that wide, thick, dark leather belt that held the holster (that held the gun), the cuffs, the keys, the power. He was rank and file, graveyard shift, crappy schedule, no seniority, but there was some authority in his tone.
“Listen up, everybody,” he told us.
Yes, he’d deliver the information. No, he wouldn’t be saying this again. He was a tall, large man. He shifted his weight, he felt his belt, he pulled on his waistband, and planted his feet shoulder width apart. He appeared steady. Every word and every gesture meant so much, as we were all tippy toeing along the line of the surreal. It was almost too much, and too heavy. He was heavy, the words were heavy, the air was heavy, the blackness of the night was heavy. I couldn’t get out from under it.
“Robert Sawyer died at 12:09 this morning, folks. That’s it.”
His message: swift gravitas, with a twist of nervousness. There was no fanfare, and only a teeny bit of decorum.
Officially, it was the next day now and it had gotten colder since we had arrived. He wore no jacket and no hat. There was some gray hair in his sideburns. He turned to go back inside. He had the big, round drum stomach of middle age. It pulled his uniform shirt tight. He stepped into the shack and drew the sliding glass door behind him.
Period. That’s it. Here we were, back at the space called surreal. Did he sign up for this task after he got the job? Did he know he’d have to say this one night at work? How many times has he done this town crier ritual?
The group hug of the women to my right was not an option for me. I heard their prayers, the comforting words they shared, and some cried.
The journalist, with an accompanying photographer, made me angry. Dollars to doughnuts they were invited to the prison, on this night especially, to get a whiff of an execution. Put them right up next to the razor wire fence of the front gate. The excitement of it all, the thrill of being so close. Their story’s hero, she who had done so much to bring the abolitionist movement to the forefront of middle class Catholic minds, chose to use Robert’s execution to heighten the drama of her story; it would run in next month’s Vogue. Yes, get that shot of the saintly woman at the bottom of the guard tower and snap, snap, snap says the camera, “just minutes” before Robert Sawyer is to be executed. A tangle of ego, a pathetic limelight with focus amiss, amidst death, crime, punishment, bounce lights, camera, look this way, please, public policy and what the fuck do we do with our fuck ups? Bad timing and poor judgment. Chalk up one big mistake for the justice community. I wasn’t proud to be part of that part of it, at that moment. She adjusted herself and looked into the camera.
I looked to the dark woods, back to the guard tower, and then back to the front gate. Where is Allyson? What is she doing now? Are they fucking with her? I wanted to think about her, not pray for him.
A prison escort truck pulled up on the other side of the gate. It started to make the u-turn on its non-stop loop back and forth to the death house. Halfway into the turn it stopped, with engine idling. Allyson got out.
Just her now, again, in jeans and a sweater. Her bible, no purse, nothing else. She was small, slim. She had lost too many pounds in the last four weeks. Months before she had talked about the gift of presence and tonight she had delivered it to Robert. Now I witnessed more of her, more of her core. She had the gift of composure; she had the gift of grace under fire.
And she had presence of mind. Yes, there was plenty of room in the D.O.C. escort truck. It could have brought them all back to the front gate, in one trip, after it was over. Plenty of room, but no, she did not accept the warden’s suggestion. She would not ride back to the parking lot with the execution witnesses or the prosecutors.
She got out of the truck. No hurry. She shut the door, turned toward us and focussed. A quick glance to her left, then she looked around generally, then put her eyes back to the gravel just ahead of her feet.
She headed for the front gate. Steady. She kept walking. She kept coming, then walked past the check-in shack, close enough to touch it. There was no sign of the guard who had, just minutes ago, announced Robert’s death.
Allyson came closer. I told myself to breathe. She walked through the front gate, on free person dirt now, and kept coming. She got within a foot of me and I put my arms out. She crumpled in the hug.
She is a mighty warrior, wielding her love, waging her compassion just minutes after midnight.
category: essay & creative non-fiction
word count: 1,695