Twenty-Four Hours Left
I've been watching the clock come up to 5 a.m. Not sleeping, and not surprised really. How could I sleep on this last night? It has been so quiet. I read someplace that on the night before an execution, Death Row is the quietest place on earth.
My name is Ed Davis. In just under twenty-four hours, I will be leaving this cell for the last time.
It’s lonely, but I'm not alone — never alone. Guards are my constant companions, though they sit just outside my cell. Mr. Critchett is on duty now. We call each other "Mr.” here. I am Mr. Davis. Very formal, very proper. Just one of many prison reforms from the past few years, this one more benign than most.
Critchett is hard to read. I'm not officially supposed to talk with the guards, nothing beyond the bare minimum required to go through the daily routine. But it is impossible not to. And it is impossible not to know them just from watching them. Mr. Critchett looks like a military man. When he stands, which is often, he stands erect, alert. The posture of a soldier at attention. He speaks carefully, as if giving and responding to orders. Like a pilot to his tail gunner maybe. I'm guessing that he likes his job, takes it seriously. I'm guessing that he is looking forward to tomorrow morning.
I know what will happen. I'm not supposed to, but I do. Some of the guards talk a bit more than others. Some of them like talking.
In just under twenty-four hours my cell door will open. Warden Yeager will be here. And Pastor Stedman and a couple of guards I won't know. The manacles will go on my ankles and wrists. I don't know why — but what is it that therapists say? The "why" questions will make you crazy. It's not like I could escape. San Quentin is more secure than ever; thanks to the recent changes, all our prisons are — Better Prisons, Better Peace of Mind. Who could argue with that?
We will step out the cell door and turn right. If we turned left we'd go a few yards down the hall to the cell block door, the one I entered through. Under the new system, once you walk in that door you almost never walk back out.
I will turn right. Shuffle down the hall a bit. Come to that other door. Go through it.
And I will step into the Rust Room.
I guess it used to be a green room back when they had the gas chamber, and later when they went to lethal injection. But now it's rust colored, kind of a reddish rust. The guard who shared that particular bit of information, Mr. Zebel, took particular delight in telling me that.
There will be no witnesses in the room, but the event will definitely be witnessed. Directly across the door from where I enter will be the GBS camera crew. The Government Broadcasting System carries most of the news events of the day — or at least those events that management thinks are worthy. They always cover executions. This particular broadcast, Mr. Zebel told me, will be brought to the public by the good people at Smith & Wesson. It seems appropriate.
Just to my left, standing at parade rest, will be a row of ten men and women. Each of them volunteers chosen from the Homeland Security Police, each of them specifically trained in the skills required for this particular task.
Each of them with a rifle at their side.
The guards will lead me to a spot marked on the floor and put a black mask over my head. There's a post behind the spot so they can strap me up, if necessary. Will it be necessary? Even this close to the time I don't know.
On the count the weapons will go up, the triggers will be pulled, and ten pieces of steel-jacketed lead will go crashing through my skull. None of this “one bullet and nine blanks” nonsense for them or for me.
I've been told that lethal injection was abolished not because it was ineffective but because it seemed timid, almost apologetic — as if the state didn't really want to perform this particular rite.
Some say the new method is actually kinder, quicker, almost instantaneous. Maybe. Mostly I think it looks better on TV. All but the one thing, that is. That's why the room is rust colored instead of green.
But that's forever from now, almost a whole twenty-four hours away. In the meantime, here I am in this cell where I've spent the last three months. A short time in retrospect but an eternity in its tedious unfolding.
And so little time is left.
I've got almost nothing in my cell, per the prison reforms. A six by ten room. Three concrete walls, and one nothing but bars with a small door in it. A cot, a desk, a chair, a toilet without a seat. Why no seat? It's not like I could hang myself with it. It's not like I'm not being watched twenty-four hours a day, both by the guards and cameras in my cell and in the hall.
No seat though.
No computer, no TV, no radio. There was a time when prisoners had those things. This new system is supposed to be more humane. By official thinking, it’s like torture: giving a prisoner a glimpse of what's outside when they will never see it again. This way is more compassionate. And it leaves no doubt, as if the bars ever did, of who is in absolute control.
They do let me have some books, but only some. Anything by Mark Twain is fine, even Huck Finn, surprisingly. I'm guessing they've never read it. Nothing by Kurt Vonnegut. Hemingway and Jack London are on, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald off. Steven King is no problem — except for Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.
As to visitors? Company? News? There's a new policy about those, too. Except for the guards, who rotate every eight hours, and a visit from Pastor Stedman once a week, I've been absolutely alone. Sure, I've got lawyers, a team of them working pretty much round the clock. But their work should have been done before I got here — or that's my current reasoning. Yes, they're still free to try to get me out. I'm just not free to help. It is supposed to be more compassionate this way, and the time goes more quickly they say.
Actually, I think they got that part right. The time does go quickly, Too quickly. And yet so slowly. I don't know how that can be, but it is — the months leading up to this day so short, the minutes so long.
None of us ever think much about time, at least not until we run out of it. We're only given so much — so many seconds in very minute — so many minutes in an hour — so many hours and days and weeks and months in our lives. We only get so much, and we almost never notice it, don't even think about it as it slips by, never to come again. A jail cell is a great place to think about time. To learn about it, come to understand — and hate — and crave — and fear it. Nobody knows time like a man who is almost out of it.
I'm almost out now. If I could, would I go back and reclaim some of the allotment that has already passed? Would I pull back those idle minutes spent doing what? Nothing. Less than nothing. Would I pick a time, a day, a place, a single event to relive? Or would I decide to put that time back in the bank so I could take it out and use it again, use it now? God yes! I would. I think I would. I know I wasted so much. So. Much. What I don't know is: what would I take back? What I don't know is: which of those minutes that seemed wasted led to others that weren’t? Maybe led to others that were great — a lifetime that was great in so many ways. Yet — they all led finally to this night, this place, this cell.
I don't know what I’d take back or do over, but I do think about it.
I think about it all the time.
And why is it, right now, that the time seems to be racing by?
They put a clock on the wall out in the hall. I can hear it, see it, watch the second hand ticking, moving, speeding around the dial. I swear it's going faster now than last month, last week, yesterday — just a minute ago. I swear I can feel it speeding up. Maybe it is. Maybe I'm speeding up. Maybe it is getting too close, too real. I don't know what I thought this last day would be like. It's only just started, only less than an hour old, and already it isn't what I expected. I'm tired already. Lack of sleep for sure. But more than that, carrying this weight the past few months, knowing that the clock, whether moving fast or slow, was moving my way. And it wasn't going to stop.
I never thought it would speed up.
I never saw that coming.
Mr. Critchett just sits there watching me. Stoic, businesslike. I wonder if he has any idea at all what I'm thinking. I wonder if he has anything on his mind. Other than finishing his shift and heading home. Probably. Probably he's going through procedures in his head, last day procedures. What to do if I panic. What to do if I faint. Or cry. Or plead or beg? I'll try to make it easy on him — I don't see myself doing any of those things. But then — I didn't see myself here in the first place.
Damn that clock. I need to stop looking at it. The time is racing in here, sure, but what about time in the rest of the world? The rest of the world that I knew and know and love and will leave behind? It's still out there just beyond these walls. Sometimes if I close my eyes, I can feel it all there. Beyond reach. The cars, the offices, the boats on the bay. The activity that just goes on — around me, in spite of me. In spite of everything. I take some comfort in knowing that it's all still out there. But I can't let my mind go too far down that road. It's all still out there, but I'm not. I won't even be in here all that much longer.
I won't be at all.
No longer aware of San Francisco Bay and the city that lies beyond the row of high, barred windows in the wall opposite my cell door. They face southeast, I think. Sometimes the moon is visible, like now. A cradling moon I think they call it. A bright sliver, a crescent that cradles within it the shadow of the rest of the orb, like a child to its mother's breast. I think that means there will be good weather today. Good weather, like on the day that landed me here.
Almost six months ago on the city hall steps in my hometown of Elgin, California, I took a man’s life. I wish I could say that it hadn't happened. I wish that more than anything, have wished it every long minute of every eternal day.
A spring afternoon, the kind people move to Elgin for, the kind they never leave because of. My friends and family there, and several hundred townspeople. And a lot of others and the GBS cameras.
I did in fact kill a man. A friend. In front of them all. According to the law of the land, I'm guilty as charged — guilty as hell.
And in just over twenty-three hours, they’re going to kill me for it.