For being Death Row, the hallway didn’t smell all that bad (thanks in part to me and in part to my condemned cohorts who, despite being allies of anarchy in the eyes of the law, kept their final residences in a state of cleanliness that would make any non-cat-lady spinster smile). I say cohorts but what I mean is likenesses. I’m like them and they’re like me. For a few reasons.
The State of Texas basks in the frequent use of justice. Justice to Texas means a couple of good ol’ boys taking a bad egg outside and cracking him around till he makes a tasty looking brain and bone omelette on the pavement. When breakfast isn’t on the menu, the Captain Kangaroo Courts sentence the presumed guilty to a sterile room, a faux-leather table (with straps–kinky), and a few needles to the arm. The best part (though they won’t admit it)? Sometimes the drugs don’t work. And sometimes it’s an accident.
I’m one of those bad eggs who escaped the whisk and landed myself in a cozy cardboard-gray Death Row holding cell to be leered at while I paced like a cabin-fevered lion and exhausted my appeals. And though my appeals were exhausting, one paid off and my sentence was commuted to life. Technicality or not, they don’t get to kill me. And they don’t like that.
So rather than immerse me in the general population, I get to be bitch boy numero uno for the Death Row guards and residents. Sweeping, mopping, dusting, scrubbing, disinfecting, sopping–I’ve done it all. Kitty litter works best for both blood and vomit, but only if they’re fresh. Old blood and old vomit tend to like to stay in place.
But as I mentioned before, my compatriots, my brothers in arms with whom I’d once shared a fate, tended to keep a clean house. So most of my day was spent fetching books from the library, emptying trashcans, and being mocked by whichever guard decided to waddle his way past me.
But I don’t mind so much. I’m the only non-guard and non-lawyer interaction that these condemned men have (as most have no family or no visitation rights for various reasons–cell #2 dissolved his family in lye, for instance, so, no family). I’m their last connection to anything outside their 8×10 pre-coffin.
I know all their names by heart, but I don’t call them by their given name. No, to me they’re cell #1, cell #2, cell #3, cell #4, and cell #S (yes, S–the prisoner who painted the numbers didn’t actually know his numbers and only recognized the letter S because his name was Steve and his shirt said “S. McCauly.” He copied the first four numbers from the list given to him and just so happened to mis-read 5. A case of mistaken identity, if you will).
As fate would have it, cell #S’s claim to fame was his claim to innocence. He was a case of mistaken identity. He specialized in beating dead horses and according to the state, beating humans dead. And everyday I was his sounding board. “Oh no, sir. You know what happened? I got blue eyes–you know how many people got blue eyes? And I got white skin. You know how many people got white skin? Plus I got brown hair. Blue eyes, white skin, brown hair. I could be anyone.”
As I mopped past the door to cell #4, I readied myself for cell #S’s onslaught of excuses. I’d listen. I’d nod. I’d mop. And I’d leave. He never asked for books, or for food, or for drugs (which, of course, I know nothing about). All he did was ramble about why he couldn’t have done it. To be honest, I don’t know what “it” was.
I lined myself up with the corner of cell #S and was about to breathe in deeply as I normally did before immersing myself in his insanity, but something was different. His soda-straw arms weren’t poking out through the meal-door. Hell, the meal-door wasn’t even there. The doorway was empty. The door rested on its heavy hinges, barely just not touching the opposite wall.
My eyes and my feet did the walking and I ended up in the center of cell #S. No cellmate #S to be found.
Nothing at all caught my eye. Nothing. No posters, no books, no food, no nothing. The sole occupant of the room (aside from myself) was a well folded origami crane resting in the center of a freshly pressed blanket on top of a freshly made bed.
The bird itself was remarkable–crisp, sharp, and covered in tiny, precise handwriting. Unfolding the bird uncovered a densely packed sheet of immaculately handwritten English. His last plea for mercy? I’m sure they’d taken him to the sterile room.
The note read: “They denied my last appeal. A standard tune: Appeal, deny, appeal, deny, appeal, deny, lie, deny, lie, deny. Oh yes, I lied. They gave me therapy and I learned to lie real well. Oh, I’m sorry. I meant good. Lie real good sounds more provincial and innocent, doesn’t it? Mr. Mopper, I apologize for using you for practice. I need to work on my slow. People are more likely to believe a slow person. But you won’t believe me again. But do me one favor, trust me this last time and look in the polished metal above the toilet-sink. Take a real good look and remember not to judge a book by its cover. You were my means to an end–nothing personal. Cheers, friend.”
Prison mirrors were soft polished metal bolted to the wall–soft polished metal bolted to the wall was safer than broken glass on the floor and in a guard’s neck. What could it hurt to give this interesting card his last wish? I assumed the guards had already taken him to the sterile room in the sky.
Two steps and I stood in front of the mirror gazing into the unfamiliar eyes of cell #S below the unfamiliar brown hair surrounded by the unfamiliar white skin standing where I should be.
I heard the gate unlock down the hallway. “Cell #5, it’s time.”