Dead Man Walking – that’s what they used to call prisoners on Death Row. In my case, Dead Man Rolling would have been more appropriate. When you’re strapped into a gurney with your head immobilized, you have nowhere to look but straight. You can’t look left, you can’t look right; you can only look straight up at the glare coming from the lights overhead. You’ll do anything to slow down time, to lengthen the few minutes of life you have left.
I tried counting the squares in the plastic panels covering the fluorescent lights as I passed under them. One, I noticed, covered a burned out bulb, the dark gray empty space providing relief from the bright glare cascading down on me.
“Clarence,” I shouted. “You have a light out.” I had a brief, insane notion that they’d actually stop to fix the bulb.
My only Death Row friend, a guard named Clarence, responded in a deep, baritone voice. “I’ll see that it gets fixed.”
“That’s good, Clarence. You...you always do the right thing.” So much for that idea.
How many times have you gone into a supermarket, pulled a cart from the hundreds that are lined up, only to find out that it had a wheel that jiggled? You try to ignore it for a while, but the more you feel it shake, the more it gets under your skin. Well, I had a gurney that jiggled. I tried to ignore the shaking that rose from the floor to my body, but then I heard an unknown voice mumbling something about God.
Before I was strapped down, you see, I had decided to go out with dignity and ignore the little things that ate at me, like my crappy last meal and the cobweb in the corner of my cell. What was the point of complaining, anyway? No one would listen. They just wanted to get on with it, to get rid of me and move on to the next prisoner. But the jiggling gurney drove me mad, and I changed my mind. Go ahead and complain.
“I think there’s a wheel out of whack on this gurney, Clarence. The whole thing is shaking. It’s very, very annoying. Could we take a few minutes to fix that? Can we fix this fucking thing?”
“Now, Phil. We got the Reverend…”
“Fuck him! And fuck his prayers! Tell him to shut up. I don’t want to hear about God. If there was a God I wouldn’t be in this situation!”
The gurney, my transportation for the last five minutes, came to a sudden, jolting halt. While we were moving, my execution seemed unreal, almost like a dream. But now, I accepted the finality of my situation – my time was up.
“We’re here, Mr. Rolfe. Before we attach the intravenous, do you have any last words?”
I recognized the nasally whine of the Warden’s voice. At least I wouldn’t have to listen to him anymore. His voice was like fingernails on a blackboard. “Yeah, I have some last words! I didn’t kill my wife!”
I heard a sigh and imagined the eyes rolling in the warden’s head, the look of contempt etched on his thin lips. “Any last words other than those, Mr. Rolfe?”
My kids! I had to get a message to them. “Josh! Michael! I love you!”
I felt Clarence’s breath on my neck as he bent over to whisper in my ear. “They’re not here. You know the state wouldn’t let them watch this. But I’ll tell them what you said if…if I get the chance. Try counting backwards, Phil. It’ll calm you down.”
“I don’t want to be calm! Fuck counting backwards! I’ll count forward! One! Two!”
Oh, Jesus! Even in my head, the numbers were getting harder to say.