An account of a young man's last day before being executed.
Craig A. Ross
I could see myself in the dark mahogany coffin. How I had gotten there and why was something I couldn't remember. I could hear the hum of an organ playing softly in the background, as mourners began filling the pews of the small church. Most of the faces I didn't recognize, but there were a few mugs I was happy to see, homeboys from the old neighborhood-Big J.T., Lowdown, Spoony, and Spoony's little brother, Klepto, who, at the ripe old age of ten, was already a professional thief. I thought it was strange that they were wearing white dinner jackets and carrying serving plates. Then again, these were guys who'd wake up in the morning and smoke weed for breakfast. They probably thought there were going to be some eats after the funeral. I didn't blame them; these things can be pretty boring. I saw my family seated in the front row. My lawyer, with his secretary, Dora, was sitting behind them. My mother, who never dreamed she would outlive any of her children, looked on, stricken. I felt a pang of guilt.
The sound of the organ began to fade and the faint hush of whispers among the mourners slowly subsided.
Whack! "Now put that back!" I heard Spoony say, as he popped Klepto upside the head. Then they all began to stare hypnotically at the dark-robed figure standing ominously behind the wooden podium. His face was obscured by a large hood, and his hands were gloved. Man, this guy is straight outta the comic books, I thought.
When he spoke, his voice seemed to resonate off the walls of the church, sending icy chills through my skin like an arctic breeze.
"Let us all rejoice in the holy offering!" he bellowed
Offering? What offering? I thought.
"Let us give thanks to the blessed one," he commanded, as everyone in the church began nodding their heads in unison and shouting, "Thank you, Lord! Thank you, Lord!"
Whooooaaaa! Back up, mister! What fucking offering? This is my goddamn funeral, not a-
"We shall partake of the sacrifice!" he thundered on, followed by another joyous chorus of "That's right, Lord. Thank you, Lord!"
Hey! What the hell is going on here? I tried to scream, but couldn't make a sound. He then beckoned to everyone to gather around the casket, and I could feel them pressing and pushing up against the sides, peering in at my lifeless body, lovingly . . . almost hungrily. Panic set in, and I tried to get up and run, but I couldn't move. Aw, c'mon-let me outta here, I pleaded. I ain't no offering.
I felt hands caressing and poking my body. Then I saw my little sister and Klepto licking their lips and my lawyer's secretary wiping off her silverware. The dark figure walked to the head of the casket and pulled back his hood. His face was hideous: there was no skin, just bone and pieces of rotting flesh. His mouth was twisted and mangled as he grinned, displaying rows of sharklike teeth, and his eyes were only gaping holes filled with maggots. I frantically looked around and saw everyone changing into grotesque and disfigured creatures. My mother was barely recognizable as she grabbed me by the throat with a clawed hand and began to lift me straight from the coffin. Filled with the horror of what was about to happen, I tried to close my mind to the gruesome scene. . . . I couldn't.
"Now! Let us all feast!" the robed thing said, as he snapped off one of my arms like a chicken wing.
Noooooo! I screamed in my mind, just as the thing that used to be my little sister dislodged one of my eyeballs from its socket with her easybake oven fork and greedily gobbled it down.
My eyes flew open and I quickly sat up in the bunk to survey the small cell. Everything was still. "Damn!" I whispered to myself. "You gotta get a grip, man." Dreaming is one thing, but this shit is ridiculous. Some would claim this was guilt eating away at my conscience . . . fuck them! I bet that prison shrink would have a field day analyzing my dream. Fuck him, too.
I looked out the small window directly in front of my cell. It was dark outside, making things seem almost peaceful. But that was an illusion. There was nothing peaceful about prison, nothing serene about death row, and at that very moment certain preparations were being carried out that placed me at the center of it all.
My name is Nathan Cole Walker; Nat Cole for short, a nickname my grandmother gave me on account of her fondness for the singer Nat King Cole. Personally, I can't hit a note and rap music is my thing. I must admit, I did have a smooth style that infatuated the young ladies. But that was eons ago and a helluva lot has changed since those days.
In less than twenty-four hours it will be my twenty-fifth birthday, but there will be no celebrating, no party, no happy nothin'. Because I'm not gonna live to see it.
Six years ago, I was sentenced to death. The whys don't matter now, and the particulars aren't important. Today I have run out of time, destiny has come kicking at my door, and I am scheduled to be executed promptly at eleven thirty Wednesday night. It is now Wednesday morning... my last day on Earth.
I tried to shake the dream from my head, before beginning my routine of pacing the six-by-ten cell. It's a mode of controlling the rage of the half-man, half-animals we've become. A silent way of expressing our malediction at being caged. It is never escape-respite, maybe-but never escape.
"Anything wrong, Walker?" the guard who was posted outside my cell asked. He had been watching me from the moment I woke up, jotting down his observations on paper.
"Naw, nothin' I can't deal with," I shot back in disgust.
"What time is it?" I asked the guard. He glanced up from the Playboy he had stashed between the pages of a National Geographic, rubbed his eyes, and looked at his watch.
"It's almost six thirty." He yawned. "Just about time for me to be gettin' outta here," he added, with apparent relief. Six thirty was the shift change; another guard would be taking his place for second watch in a few minutes. I resumed my pacing.
Anyone put on death watch is provided with around-the-clock security and scrutiny, compliments of the Department of Corrections, just in case you decide to skip the scenic route to the gas chamber, in an attempt to cheat the state out of its judicial duty to personally kill you. The guard who would be coming on for second watch was named Ford. I had known Ford over the years; he was okay, as guards go. Sometimes we'd get in a game or two of chess, or shoot the breeze to break the monotony. When you're waiting to die, the boredom alone could kill you.
I could hear Ford locking the door.
"How's it going, Ford?" I said, still looking up at the ceiling.
"Not too bad, Walker. And you?"
"Same old tune." There was silence for a moment.
"You wanna get in a game of chess later?" he asked, trying to sound cheerful. We both knew we'd played our last game.
"I don't know-maybe."
"Well, if you do, just holler." He turned to his paperwork and I shut my eyes in a futile attempt to shield out reality. My mind was like a movie screen.
"Nigger, you got somethin' to say before I end you black ass life?" I didn't say a word as I watched the cop pull his pants leg and reach for the gun that was strapped to his ankle. I let the Glöck slide easily down my sleeve and into my hand. By the time the cop realized a gun was pointing at him, it was too late. The first bullet tore through the front of his neck and the second one entered his right eye. He died before hitting the ground. The scene repeated itself over and over. After all these years, that one event still seemed like it happened yesterday.
The ringing of the phone brought me back. "I'll ask him, hold on. Walker, it's Chaplain Graves," Ford said, with an ear-to-ear grin. "You wanna see him?"
"Fuck him!" I said. I sat up on the bunk and grabbed a book from the pile on the floor. It was Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. I could relate to the main character, because all my life I've been invisible to folks. The only time they seemed to take notice was when I got into trouble. No one really knew me, not even my family-hell, I didn't even know myself. Everything I did brought me close to death, toward this very moment. I once read somewhere that desperate men are always running out of time. Well, right now, I must be truly desperate.
I must have read for almost an hour before putting the book down. I was just about to close my eyes when Ford asked, "Say, Walker? If you want, I can call the Muslim chaplain or something. I mean, in case you wanted to speak to someone."
"Thanks, but no thanks."
"Well, I just thought you might want to talk to somebody who can understand-well, who can relate to-you know what I mean?"
"I know what you mean, Ford."
"Say, Walker? Are you afraid of dying? I mean, I can't even imagine how I would feel in your place."
I thought about it for a moment, but I already knew my answer.
"Naw, I ain't afraid of dying. Dying is something I've been doing all my life. But when you know when and how it's gonna happen, all it takes is that one step over the edge inside your head-then bam! That's why most men are able to walk to their execution. They're already dead inside their heads."
"That's a helluva way of looking at it, Walker."
"I don't need to get nothing off my chest. And if there is a God out there, then he's gonna have a lot of fucking explaining to do when I reach the hereafter."
We both laughed; then there was a long pause. Empty of anything else to say, we both went back to what we were doing. I was tossed back to old times, and it wasn't long before I dozed off.
"Hey, Walker! Walker!" I heard my name being called from far away.
"Whaaat . . . " I mumbled, still half in the dream state.
"Walker. Someone here to see you," Ford said apologetically.
"Who?" I demanded, fully awake now.
"Doctor Cohen?" I tried to place the name. Cohen was the prison shrink. This was his third visit; the first two times I simply ignored his ass.
He pulled the extra chair from the desk and planted it in front of the cell. We were face to face with the cell bars between us.
"What's up, Doc?" I smiled.
"How are you feeling today, Walker?" He always started off with the same stupid ass question, trying to sound as sincere as possible.
"Well, you caught me in a good mood today, Doc. I was just about to start playing with my dick . . . but what can I do for you?"
"I came by to see how you are doing."
"For cryin' out loud, all of a sudden everyone is concerned about my fucking welfare. What gives?"
"I'm just doing my job, Walker," he stated matter-of-factly.
"And what is that, Doc?" He looked at me, puzzled.
"Well, to talk, mainly."
"About emotions you're feeling, about things that may be going through your mind, or dreams you may be having." His mention of dreams caught me off guard, and I wondered if I had talked in my sleep.
"Dreamt I walked on water, Doc," I said sarcastically.
"Walker, I understand that under the circumstances it's normal to feel anger, but you don't have to be confrontational."
"Wrong! That's my style, man, plus I like testing seersuckah-suit mothafuckahs like you, just to see that geek look you get on your face." I burst out laughing; he just sat there, turning beet red. His mouth opened and closed, as if he were trying to find something to say.
"Okay, Walker, you crazy bastard!" he whispered through clenched teeth, trying vainly to maintain his clinical composure. "If you want to play fucking games-"
I immediately stopped laughing and sprang to my feet, cutting him off. I had him and he knew it.
"Game! Naw, this is far from a fucking game, Doctor. Here the stakes are much higher."
"Well, then, what would you call it?"
"I call it . . . my personal responsibility to upset bullshit mental tacticians like yourself. You waltz in here doing your friend routine, thinking you'll become famous at my expense by getting me to expose the juicer morsels of my brain-so you can jump in front of the camera seconds after I'm dead, claiming you were the only one I would talk to, the only one I trusted."
"Walker, that's not true," he said, nervously shaking his head. "I would never do anything like that."
"Tell me, Doc, when were you planning on cutting a book deal-while the dirt was still moist on my grave, or after it dried?"
"I'm telling you, Walker, no such thing has ever crossed my mind. Nothing that's mentioned here will go beyond these walls. I'm a professional doctor, for Christ's sake!"
"When you look at me, all you see is an experiment . . . some data that might make you famous. But you sit there confident, grinning inside, never realizing that by trying to look into my head, you incriminate yourself, just like all the others who will watch me suffocate, watch me slowly, painfully, pass into nonexistence. My death will render me not guilty, but it illuminates your guilt, your savage necrophilia. I'm every bit as human as those who seek to strip me of my humanity."
He sat there looking like a kid who just got busted bang with his hand in the cookie jar. If I had been in doubt, his eyes convinced me that my words had hit their mark.
He stood abruptly, began to walk toward the door, hesitated, and then left. I lay back on the bunk with my hands behind my head, staring at the ceiling.
"What time is it, Ford?" I called out.
"Ten twenty," he called back.
He was the only person I still cared to talk to. "Ten twenty," I said to myself. You're gonna be a statistic, Nat Cole, in less than fifteen hours.
I lay there for about thirty minutes. I had already resigned myself to the fact that the courts weren't going to give me any action. All this waiting around was starting to make me edgy.
The phone rang. Ford answered it.
"Walker, your attorney is here. They're on their way to pick you up."
"All right, thanks."
Two guards escorted me to the small room where they allowed me to visit. When I walked in, Duncan Brock stood up to greet me. We shook hands warmly, then sat at the small table. He looked tired, and I knew he had probably slept only a few hours in the last four days. His otherwise immaculate suit was rumpled, his hair halfheartedly combed, and there were noticeable dark spots beneath his eyes.
"How are you holding up, Nat?"
"So-so, but you look like you been mugged." We both smiled. Duncan was one of the few people left in the world I truly respected. Over the years we'd had our share of differences but always managed to work them out. It made us respect each other as persons, as friends. I felt sorry for him. He had done his best, yet I thought he was always going to feel that there was something more he could have done. Even in these final hours, Duncan was optimistic.
We talked about how my family was doing, and about the people outside the prison protesting my execution. Then he began to tell me about the legal strategies he was trying.
"Listen, Nat, I filed a new writ with the Ninth Circuit Court challenging-"
My thoughts began to drift, and images floated through my mind. "Son, where are you going?" "To basketball practice, Momma-"
"I talked to one of my law professors and he thinks-"
"Momma, Nat hit me-"
"-also the Supreme Court could-"
"Homeboy! Nat Cole is straight crazy-"
"-other options that legally-"
"Mrs. Walker, we've arrested your son for-"
"-the main thing is the constitutionality of-"
"You are hereby sentenced to be put to death in the-"
Like a motion picture the scenes came and went, until one thing remained; the words The End.
We sat there exchanging small talk until a guard showed up at the gate, announcing it was time for me to go back. We stood and embraced each other.
Then the guard motioned me to him. I walked over, turned around, and he put the cuffs on and opened the gate to escort me back upstairs.
"Take care, Duncan," I said.
"I'm not going to give up, Nat!" he said strongly. I didn't answer. I knew this was the last time we would see each other.
Back at my cell, it was a little after four o'clock. The phone had been installed right outside, a direct link to my lawyer for good news... or bad.
It was almost six o'clock when Ford called to me. At first my mind couldn't compute the reality of his question. I was stunned by its finality, even though I knew they would ask me.
"Walker, the warden wants to know what you'd like for your last meal."
I didn't say anything. My mind locked on the question. The concept loomed like a giant neon sign, pushing all other thoughts to the side, until it alone remained. Last meal! Hell, how in the fuck was I supposed to enjoy something like that? My stomach did some gymnastics and I knew there was no way I was going to be able to eat anything. The very thought of crapping on myself while choking to death was enough to deter me from eating. When they pulled me out of the chamber, my drawers were going to be clean.
"Fuck that, man. I don't want nothin'!" I told Ford.
"Absolutely. I don't want shit!" I could imagine the warden's expression. He'll probably try to send that shrink over here. But I doubt he wanted to see me again. I got off the bunk and began pacing again. I also started singing every song I knew in my mind, but after a while, I would sing the first verse, then nothing . . . hum a few notes, then nothing. It was like the words were just vanishing from my memory. Verses got mixed up, songs became intertwined. I finally gave up.
"What time you got, Ford?"
"I need to use a pencil and paper."
"No problem." He went in his desk and got out some sheets of paper and a small pencil that had been broken in half, for my supposed safety.
I rolled my mattress back so I could use the flat steel bunk as a table. I was going to write one last letter, but instead found myself just sitting there, staring at the paper. After about an hour of scribbling on several sheets of paper and tossing them into the toilet, I finally wrote something. I titled it A Seminar in Dying. It was a poem, the kind only a desperate man could write.
Imagine seeing the flash of a camera, and in that same instant you
witness the most violent and brutal scene of your life.
Imagine seeing a contorted face, broken limbs, blood flowing.
Imagine the terrified screams, the unbearable pain, the pleas for help, the tears.
Imagine death, as you fall to your knees, embracing a dying body... your body.
Imagine that last look , that last word, that last touch . . . that last breath.
Imagine life the day after, the week after, the year after . . . the hereafter.
Imagine seeing that camera flash in your sleep and your waking moments
...over and over, every second, every minute, every hour, in your mind.
Imagine seeing the end . . . your end, every day, until you die . . . imagine.
It was all I had left in me. I folded the paper, got an envelope from Ford, and addressed it to my lawyer.
"Make sure he gets this after-you know, when things are over."
"He'll get it, don't worry."
Sometime later, the phone in front of my cell rang. I just stared at it, uncertain of what to do.
"Answer it," Ford said, enthusiastically. I reached gingerly through the bars and picked it up.
"Yeah?" I whispered.
"Nat?" It was Duncan. He sounded exhausted.
"Yeah?" I whispered again.
"Nat, the courts turned us down, but-"
I put the phone down, not hanging it up, just laying it on its side. I could hear Duncan still calling my name, but there was nothing else to say, nothing else to hear.
"What time you got, Ford?"
"Eleven-o-five." Just then, the phone on his desk rang. The sudden change of his expression told me everything.
"Walker," he said solemnly, as he hung up the phone.
"Yeah, I know." They were on their way to get me. This was it-time to face the matador.
"You want some more orange juice or something, Walker?"
I just looked at him. I knew he was trying the break the overwhelming sense of dread that had started to condense like storm clouds around us. I looked down at my feet. I didn't recognize them. They seemed like independent machines separate from my body, and they would of their own volition lead me right to the gas chamber. Looking away, I thought, I would hate to have to whack you guys off. I put my shoes on and splashed some cold water on my face. I took a piss, washed my hands, and combed my hair-but as I was combing it, I was struck by the realization that everything I was now doing would be my last time doing it. I suddenly felt completely alone; my heart started to thump somewhere in my throat.
"Walker, it's time to go." The warden and two guards were waiting like stone sentinels. I walked over to the bars, consciously controlling each step. One guard put the cuffs on through the tray-slot. Ford opened the gate and, as I stepped out, I nodded to him slightly. He nodded back. I walked slowly, my breath hard. The sound of it echoed in my head like giant waves. I turned to the warden.
"Do me a favor, Warden?"
"What is it?" he asked, bewildered.
"Well, do you think we could make this long walk short?"
"How?" He looked even more confused.
"By running!" I said and burst out laughing.
They all looked at me like I had just snapped, Ford included. They stood there, uncertain of what to do next.
"Aw, c'mon guys, it's a joke," I said. "I'm just trying to ease the gloom. Hell, the way you dudes look, a person would think you're the ones about to get x'ed out."
"Walker, how can you joke at a time like this?"
"Yeah, you're right, Warden. So when do you think would be a good time for me to joke?"
Then, looking him straight in the eye, I asked him seriously, "Warden? When was the last time you been to a circus?" But I didn't give him time to answer. "Let's go," I said. "There's one waiting for us."
We walked out into a long, narrow hallway.
The warden stuck a key into a slot where the buttons should have been and turned it. It took a few seconds for the door to open and I could hear the elevator lumbering toward the top. The door opened suddenly with a whoosh, and we all stepped in. The guards positioned themselves behind me, while the warden remained at my side. It had all been rehearsed, their roles, the parts they would play. I imagined them practicing it. I wondered who they got to play me.
The elevator stopped and the door whooshed open. We stepped into a smaller hallway, made a right, and walked toward a large green steel door. I thought I could hear a murmur of voices on the other side and I imagined rows of people drinking soda, eating popcorn, and chanting, "Kill him, kill him, kill him!"
The warden pressed a button this time, and a few seconds later the door popped open. As we walked in, my entire body grew hot and the palms of my hands started to sweat. The first thing I saw was the gas chamber.
Everything became dreamlike and every second was an eternity. My mind went numb, my throat bone dry. This was my first real look at the chamber-I stood there, my eyes transfixed on the cylindrical shape and the chair sitting directly in the middle. The feeling of déjà vu hit me again, this time much stronger. Now don't get the wrong impression-I didn't all of a sudden get religion. But when dying is the central theme of your life, your perspective on things can change. I don't think it's an issue of whether or not we're afraid of dying-it's more like being afraid of not having existed, you know what I mean? I guess that's why people tend to believe in things like reincarnation, heaven, and transmigration, because those things offer a sense of continuity or immortality. Hey, life after death sure beats ashes to ashes.
"Let's go, Walker," the warden said, taking hold of my arm. We walked to the door of the chamber. One of the guards pulled open the door and, as I stepped in, the air was stale and oppressive. I swear I could sense the men who had gone before me-that somehow I could feel them still in that room. If my mind was playing a trick on me, it was a damn good one.
I sat down hypnotically. The chair was hard and cold. The two guards began immediately to strap me in, wrists first, then my waist and legs. My eyes were wide, alert, as if trying to suck in the last images of life. They darted around the chamber seeking anything . . . everything. The cubicle was spotless, almost as if all trace of reality itself had been vacuumed out. It was the only place I had ever been inside prison where there was absolutely no graffiti . . . no "Kilroy was here," no "Jesus loves you," no gang writing, not so much as a scratch. I guess anyone coming in here ain't in a position to do nothing but die-and the only thing that will ever deface these walls will be the souls of dead men. The warden double-checked the straps after the guards had finished. Then in a well-practiced monotone, he asked, "Do you have any last words, Walker?"
Ignoring his question, I swallowed the large lump that had formed in my throat and stared straight ahead at the dark glass window in front of me. I knew there would be people sitting on the other side, waiting to watch my death. Well, enjoy the show, folks, I said to myself. The warden asked me again if I had any last words. I said nothing, still staring at the window. He then proceeded to tell me in the same flat voice how the sentence of death was being carried out by order of the court. When he had finished, he and the two guards left without looking back. I heard the latch locking the door, and except for my breathing, there was absolute silence. I pulled against the strap-nothing. I knew it was useless at this point, but still...
I could feel my muscles tightening, as my pulse vibrated throughout my entire body. An eternity seemed to pass as I sat there, waiting for something to happen. I kept thinking that they were going to come through the door at any second. My eyes were frantically searching the window for any movement. Finally, I closed them and let my head fall back. I felt some sweat or a tear rolling off my cheek. I opened my eyes just in time to catch it falling from my face, and as I watched it fall in slow motion, I suddenly tasted something bitter and acidic in my mouth, and my lungs seemed to ignite into flames. Without even thinking about it, I quickly held my breath and, at that very moment, I knew that once I let it go, it would all be over.
With each second, the pain in my chest grew more unbearable-inside I was on fire. I began spinning and tumbling, my head falling backward and forward. I could feel the explosion in my chest heaving upward, as the pain began to burst into a billion pieces of light . . . and then I was falling, falling toward the sky, higher and higher, until I could no longer see beneath the clouds, until darkness began to engulf me. It was almost over. "C'mon, Nat, warp speed, man." Yeah, I thought, I do have something to say... then I felt the rush of warm wind, and I breathed out.
Craig A. Ross
Poetry, writing & Lessons in Life from San Quentin death row