Because Mack was superstitious about even numbers on execution day, he’d set his alarm for 5:59. He rubbed sleep out of his eyes and swung his legs over the mattress. Three decades with the prison and he’d never used a day of sick leave. Still, he thought, now would be a damn good day to start—a good day to harvest sweet potatoes or paint the bathroom Paula had been on him about. Paula propped up on one elbow and asked if he was okay. He told her he hadn’t slept well.
“Might as well get at it,” he said. “No dodging this bullet. Bad word choice.”
“I know what you meant,” she said.
After showering, Mack pulled a clean Utah State Prison uniform from his closet and sat down at the kitchen table to put on his shoes. Tying off her housecoat, Paula walked into the kitchen with a pair of navy blue socks draped across one forearm. She placed the socks on the table, one beside the other, then smoothed them flat. Mack picked one up, looking for the red thread he’d asked her to sew into the toe, because in his mind, a matching pair of socks represented an even number.
“They pass muster?” she said.
“Can’t be too careful,” he said.
“How you feeling about today?”
“It’s hard,” Mack said. “Doesn’t feel real. If weeping Jeremiah himself had prophesied that Gil would someday ask me to be on his firing squad, never would have believed it.”
He closed his eyes, pulled in a deep breath, then took his time letting it out.
“It’s not too late,” Paula said.
“Is for me.” Mack finished tying his shoes, picked up his hat, and stood. “Is it okay if we don’t rehash this thing? I can’t think of any new ways to tell you had it not been for Gil, my name would be inscribed on that wall. I owe him—plain and simple.”
“I’m trying to support you,” Paula said. “But I think it’s fair to point out you’re not the only person this is impacting.”
Mack rested his hands on the edge of the kitchen sink. Sure as hell didn’t feel like support. Felt like she was patting him on the back at the same time she was sticking an ice pick between his ribs. He wanted to throw his hat down, stomp it, shout, For God’s sake, the man pulled me out of a burning helicopter! Good way to make things worse.
In the crepe myrtle outside the window, two cardinals alit. They dropped down to the feeder, but seconds later flitted back to higher branches. His grandmother had been fond of redbirds. What was it she’d always said about them? Something about—
“Are you listening to me?” Paula said.
“Yes, I heard you.”
“What did I say?”
“You asked me if I’d asked Taylor about being an alternate?”
“It’s not like he’s making me,” Mack said, sounding more irritated than he intended. “Warden T. understands soldiers. He’s leaving it up to me, and Gil.”
When Mack walked out to his old Ford pick-up, Paula went with him. She took one of his hands and pulled his arm around her waist, drawing herself close to him. They walked without speaking, pea gravel crunching beneath their feet.
After Mack climbed into the truck and closed the door, Paula tapped on the glass with a fingernail. “Peck, peck, peck,” she said.
Mack rolled down his window. “Sorry I sounded so—”
“Defensive?” Paula said.
“I don’t think you’re at a place to hear this,” she said, “but I’m going to say it anyway. I know you love Gil, but he’s on death row, not you. Not us.”
It stung to hear Paula speak that way about Gil, especially knowing he always spoke well of her. “I don’t even know,” Mack said, holding up both hands, “what the hell that means.” He started rolling up his window.
“It means,” Paula said, “Gil Coker had no damn right dragging you—us—into this.”
Mack drove with the windows open, letting the late September air cool down his ire. Paula was a good woman, damn good. On the one hand, she was right. On the other hand, she would never understand the bond between combat soldiers. How could she? He’d never thought about it in terms of love, but maybe, by god, he did love the man. What of it? She’d never served a day in the military. Never so much as set one high heel on a military post. The only enemy she’d ever faced was her husband, and Uncle Sammy didn’t give out “V” devices for beating down your husband.
Instead of the interstate, Mack took a shortcut to Sugar House State Park, a hundred acres of grass, trees, pavilions, and walking trails. In 1855, Governor Brigham Young had opened the Utah Territorial Prison on that land. Later, that institution became Sugar House Prison. In the 1950’s, after Sugar House had been razed, the park was built. When Mack pulled into the empty parking lot overlooking the lake, the sun was burning off the last of the morning mist.
He hated it when things weren’t right between him and Paula. Left him feeling exposed as a coyote crossing eight lanes of traffic. Hell, he owed her, too—all the shit he’d put her through after Vietnam—drinking, gambling, reckless driving. After the bullets had stopped whizzing overhead and the horror had raged on, she’d saved his life, much as Gil had. Give the woman a break. She’s probably terrified that being on Gil’s firing squad could tear open old scars, prompt something that could jerk him back into self-destruct mode.
Mack tried to remember what Sugar House had looked like when he’d visited it as a child with his father, a guard at the prison. To a five-year-old, the massive stone walls, catwalks, and corner towers had made the old prison seem like a castle. More important, it was the only memory he had of his father who died in the Korean War.
“Inevitable,” Mack said aloud. Maybe Gil’s execution had always been inevitable. Had Paula thought about that? Doubt it. Maybe a million years ago God had preordained it. Mack tried, but couldn’t remember where Sugar House’s stately entrance had stood in relation to the vast acres of tomatoes, corn, and field peas that had once grown outside the prison walls.
Twenty minutes later at the Utah State Penitentiary in Draper—a complex of low-slung buildings wrapped in fence and razor wire—Mack parked across the lot from his normal spot. Another execution day precaution. As he logged in at the front desk, a relieved-sounding Officer Nance Phillips told him the warden wanted to see him.
“No, sir,” Phillips set her coffee down and stood to attention. “Said make sure you got the message.”
Mack liked Phillips. She’d come to the prison from the Army where she’d worked in supply as an armorer. Not only did she know weapons, but she also didn’t talk too much. And for damn sure wasn’t intimidated by male guards. Even six months pregnant, she was a firecracker. “Relax, Nance” he said. “You’re not in the Army anymore. It’s safe. Make that baby anxious.”
“Yes, sir,” Phillips said with a laugh, patting her stomach. “Hard habit to break. Sometimes I think I need desensitization training.”
“How long were you in?” Mack said.
“Eight years. Two tours with Dollar Ninety-Seven. I hear you wore the OD.”
“A couple of lives ago,” Mack said. “1st Infantry.”
“Big Red,” she said, as Mack turned to leave. “Some history there. Captain, don’t mean to speak out of turn, but the old man did seem agitated—pissed, really.”
Mack nodded and asked if the 197th was still with the 24th Division out of Fort Stewart. It was, but there was talk about the brigade getting deactivated due to the big troop drawdown after Desert Storm.
“Here if you need me, Captain,” she said
As he walked down the long hall to the warden’s office, Mack thought about Paula, how she’d put up with the shit he’d dragged back from Vietnam—gambling, drinking. But her tolerance had ended when he flipped his ’70 Chevelle tail light to headlight. She’d refused to sit and spectate while his life played out like a postwar movie tragedy. She’d moved out, refused to see Mack until he got help through the VA. That year had been hell with thorns. Isolation. Depression. Sure as hell not going back there.
But Gil Coker had never struggled—at least not in normal self-destructive ways. Instead of wasting his life drinking, he’d spent years building a plumbing business, sponsored an American Legion ball team. Instead of gambling money away, twice a year he held customer cookouts at Sugar House Park. Solid as Mt. Rushmore. Then, without warning, he goes postal on an old sheep farmer who’d stopped to help him change a flat tire? Bullshit.
At the warden’s office, the door was open. Warden T. sat behind his desk, face scrunched up like he’d swallowed a tablespoon of quinine. Taylor had seen combat in both World War II and Korea. The man had moxie and you damn well never had to guess what was on his mind. In forty years as warden, he had seen everything from an ultralight escape to a hit on an inmate via a transistor radio. Last thing blowing through that fellow’s mind had been Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas.”
The two green metal chairs in front of the warden’s desk were empty. Standing next to one of the chairs, in uniform, was Salt Lake County Deputy Sheriff Curtis Kiley—Mack’s brother-in-law. What are you up to this time, you bastard, Mack wanted to say. Instead, he extended his hand to Kiley. The deputy, thumbs hooked over his duty belt, turned away.
“Have a seat, Mack,” the warden said. “Won’t take long.”
Mack sat, but Curtis remained standing. Hell with him. It had been at least two years since Mack had turned him in for beating an inmate getting transported to the prison. It got him busted from lieutenant to deputy first class, but the fact Mack had fought for him to keep his job so he wouldn’t lose retirement benefits had been lost on Kiley.
“You, too, Deputy,” the warden said.
“I’ll stand,” Kiley said. “If it’s all the same.”
“It’s not all the same,” Taylor said. “Nothing is ever all the damn same.”
Kiley stood in place.
“That means,” the warden said, “sit your ass down or get the hell out of my prison.”
The deputy hitched up his belt, muttered something about professional civility, jerked the second chair back and away from Mack, and sat down.
How long had it been since he’d seen the warden this aggravated—six years ago when Pee Wee Sims escaped in a 55-gallon drum marked as old cooking oil?
“Curtis here,” the warden said, putting one foot on the desk edge and kicking back, “wants to educate me on how to run a proper prison.”
“Now hold on,” Kiley said. “I’m here as courtesy.”
“My lily-white ass,” the warden said. “I know why you’re here. Mack is going to perform his damn duty as assigned. End of drama.”
“Law don’t allow it,” Kiley said, sliding to the chair edge. “Mack on that firing squad is illegal.” Kiley banged his fist on the desk. “Immoral.”
“Remarkable,” Taylor said. “Your mouth letting that word escape.” He pointed at the door. “Time to unass the AO.”
Unass the AO. Mack smiled at an expression he’d not heard since Nam.
With Taylor close behind, Kiley stiff-legged it out of the office. Over his shoulder, he said he would take it to the Salt Lake Tribune. All the way to State Street.”
“My career can take the hit,” the warden said. “Can yours?” After closing the door, he opened it again. “I was warden when your mama was wiping mustard shit off your tiny balls.”
At a table behind his desk, the warden poured coffee. “Like that SOB reads the Tribune,” he said. On the wall above him hung a framed piece of yellowed embroidery that read: When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained ~ Mark Twain.
“Boss,” Mack said, taking the cup of coffee offered. “Don’t mean for this thing to cause you grief.”
“Kiley?” the warden said with a hand wave. “That’s not why I needed to see you. Good, though, you got to see Curtis take his best shot. And speaking of shots, the execution is stayed. Governor’s taking the weekend to scrub his conscience clean.”
“Understandable,” Mack said, feeling like he’d also received a stay. “This whole thing has moved like prairie fire.”
“Damn sure has. Almost fast as Gilmore in ’77. That one took six months from crime to casket—or in his case, urn. Looks like Coker will have his time in the Romper Room inside a year.”
Spinning his chair back around to the table, the warden stirred in more creamer, his spoon clinking against the porcelain. Early summer mornings, Mack’s grandmother had sat on her screened back porch, stirring honey into her tea, clinking her spoon. The redbirds had seemed to appear on cue.
“That’s the lesser half of what I wanted to talk to you about,” Taylor said. “When’s the last time you pulled the trigger on one of God’s creatures?”
Gil’s breakfast sat untouched on one end of his bunk. On the other end, he sat with his face in his hands.
“Tough morning,” Mack said, thinking Gil looked ten years, not ten months, older. His hair was thinner and he’d lost more weight.
“Had my mind right,” Gil said. “Prepared to go. Now the waiting starts all over again. Waiting for the VC to hit the concertina in dead-dark was easier than this shit.”
“Anything I can do?” Mack said, looking around the cell lined with paperback books; copies of westerns by Louis L’Amour, an assortment of Stephen King novels, and other classics.
Gil pulled a manila envelope from under his pillow. “My will. Hope you don’t mind me not asking beforehand, but I’d like for you to be the executioner—executor.”
Both men laughed nervously.
“You’ve already asked,” Mack said. “I accepted.”
“Sell everything,” Gil said. “Write a check to Strick’s widow.”
“She still rejecting your letters?”
Mack picked a book up off the floor, A Tale of Two Cities. He fanned absently through the pages, then tossed the book on Gil’s bunk.
Gil nodded. “I understand her thinking, but I need to at least try, right? If she balks on the money, ask if it’s okay to donate it to charity. Maybe that place for vets on Foothill. Where, is your decision, but I want her to know I’m doing the right thing even if she can’t see it now.”
“All you can do,” Mack said, balancing the envelope in his hands the way you might hold an offering plate. Was this what a good man’s life had come to, a manila envelope guarding a few sheets of paper?
“Buried behind the barn are some old coins,” Gil said. “An uncle I never knew left them to me. They’re double sealed in plastic inside an ammo can. A map in your envelope there will show you where to find them. I’d like to think you’ll take them and do something nice for you and Paula. Get the hell out of Utah—some place with blue water. But I understand if you feel they’re tainted, if you’d rather donate them.”
Mack shrugged. “Maybe a homeless shelter. I don’t know. I haven’t judged you, Gil. That’s not to say I’m not still confused about what happened.” He hoped Gil would tell him how the shooting of Strick Cotton had gone down. Had something set off a chain of events? Strick was known for his temper—good-hearted, but cantankerous as a billy goat.
“Remember the day you reported to Fort Riley?” Gil said.
“I remember,” Mack said. Of course he remembered how excited he’d been about his assignment to a post rich in both military and American history: Custer, Patton, Joe Louis. Hell, even Mickey Rooney had passed through Riley. “But you’re changing the subject, again.”
“You were like one of those newborn wobbly-legged wildebeests,” Gil said. “First thing you did was rush through the door at HQ and knock Sergeant Eckerd’s coffee cup out of his hand. He got that cup from Westmoreland, when Westy was light colonel. You broke the man’s cup and spilled hot coffee on him at the same time. Now that was an ass chewing for the history books.”
Mack chuckled. “I knew Eckerd from Platoon Leader’s Course at Upshur. Candidates called him Sergeant Crazy. Every time he stormed into the barracks: ‘On your feet, crazies!’ He would spot a crowd of candidates milling around and bowl through them. ‘Out of my way, crazies!’”
“What ever happened to that old bastard?” Gil said.
“Last word, Crazy was captaining a lobster boat in Maine.”
For a while, Mack had kept up with the platoon. Most had gone back home to Iowa cornfields and Carolina tobacco farms. Woodson last sent a postcard from the North Slope where he worked on the pipeline. After graduating from Puget Sound on the GI Bill, Renton went to work for Boeing designing the SST’s antenna. Simpson resettled in Texas, then drowned saving someone else’s child at a birthday party.
The two chatted, exchanging stories, challenging the other’s memory. It was good to hear Gil reminiscing. Memories were all he had left. Soon, even those would be gone.
“Remember that FTX—the big one before we shipped?” Gil said. “That kid from back east—one talked more shit than a Hong Kong radio?”
“Catha,” Mack said. “And I know what you’re about to say.”
“Always sneaking a smoke, bragging about how good a shot he was.”
Mack tried to remember what Catha had looked like. What had his voice sounded like? Had he been short or tall? Tall, Mack thought. And Gil was right—the kid never stopped jabbering.
“From somewhere in New Jersey,” Mack said.
“We ever figure out,” Gil said, “who dropped that bullsnake into his sleeping bag?”
Mack missed those days before combat, when soldiers were naïve boys checking gig lines and polishing their low quarters for a command inspection, before the bullets zipped overhead like hornets on suicide missions.
Mack shook his head. “Always figured it was Bradley.”
“Sounds like him, always fucking with somebody. Catha kicked like a silverback gorilla though, didn’t he?” Gil said. “Nothing left of that bag but a brass zipper around his neck.”
“Stood there naked,” Mack said. “Breathing like a Russian racehorse, sweating like a November pig. Duck down stuck all over his sweaty face.”
Gil grabbed both his knees as he laughed. “But damn,” he said, “that boy could shoot.”
Laugh, Gil, Mack thought. You’ve only got a few laughs left. Probably count them on one hand, won’t need all your fingers.
“You know he was first in the platoon to get Glad-bagged?” Mack said, remembering then how Catha had been so tall they’d folded his legs to fit him into his body-bag.
“Had to light a damn Marlboro at an OP,” Gil said. “No kicking his way out of that bag.”
Newbill, a guard on suicide watch, walked by and looked into the cell. “Just checking, Captain,” he said, then nodding at Gil. “Guess your ass feels like it’s hanging on a meat hook somewhere between heaven and hell.”
“Something like that,” Gil said.
Newbill asked Mack what was up with Curtis Kiley sticking his nose into prison business. After Mack told him those kinds of things had a way of working themselves out, the guard moved on, muttering something about Kiley needing his ass reassigned to his face.
“This thing has played itself out,” Mack said. “Governor taking a weekend is typical, but there won’t be another delay. It’ll happen on Monday. We’re down to me asking the same question: anything I can do for you?”
Mack studied Gil’s face, creased from months of worry.
“One last thing. If you can’t do it, I’ll understand.”
“I owe you my life.”
“You don’t owe me a damn thing,” Gil said. “And I’m not saying I deserve what I’m about to ask.”
“Let’s have it then,” Mack said.
Gil had the look of a man who had come to a crossroads, but had accepted the difficult path that lay ahead.
“I want to go out of this world at the hands of a man who knew me at my best, a soldier that served with me in combat.”
“You are,” Mack said. “Warden has no problem with me on the firing squad.”
“Here’s the wrinkle,” Gil said. “I want you to make certain, promise me, you’ll fire a live round.”
By seven o’clock the next morning, Saturday, Mack was sitting in a tree stand in the wooded hills east of Salt Lake City. He had driven as far as he could along an old mining trail, shoulder-slung his Winchester 88, and hoofed it a half mile deeper into the woods. As a teenager, he’d often camped here, alone, wondering what it would have been like had his father survived Korea and they had camped there together.
As he positioned himself and his rifle on the tree stand, he thought about the promise he’d made himself after Nam—to never kill another living creature. If his father were here, what would he tell him? The warden was right to question him, because when Gil first asked Mack to participate in the firing squad, it had seemed simple. He’d hung his hat on the possibility of getting issued the one blank round. It wasn’t that the idea of shooting a friend ever seemed easy, more pulling a trigger itself was an uncomplicated thing. Now, even that seemed impossible. And who was he fooling? Not only would the blank bullet produce no recoil, it would sound different from a live round. The man who fired the blank would know it as soon as he pulled the trigger. Even if the peculiar sound of the blank was swallowed up by the noise, the other lightweight 30-30 rifles would kick like mules. Still, before Gil had tossed a wrench into the gears, a twenty percent chance of getting the blank round had felt like a back door.
When Mack heard the snort, he didn’t need to look to know a deer was nearby. From the sound of it, a large buck. He rolled the safety off with his thumb, slowed his breathing, and waited. A few seconds later, the buck walked into the clearing. Not as large as Mack had expected, but broad-chested, muscled. Rack, six-pointed and symmetrical. It deserved to live, Mack thought, but like three decades earlier when he’d crouched in a muddy fox hole on
Hill 177 in Southeast Asia, he eased the 30-30 to his shoulder and nestled his cheek onto its stock. And like decades earlier at the Quantico firing ranges with Sergeant Crazy in his ear, like hundreds of times in Vietnam, he inhaled, aligned the rifle’s sights, and followed the line of the deer’s front leg. At the end of his exhale, Mack held his breath until the rifle steadied. The deer collapsed where it stood.
Mack didn’t move. He’d expected it to be harder to pull the trigger, if he could do it at all. But it had been automatic. He’d not hesitated. His hands had not shaken. In fact, it had been easy—too damn easy. Had it been that way when Gil shot Strick Cotton? Had Gil, without thinking, eased the rifle to his shoulder as naturally as Mack had just done? Like the deer, had Strick dropped where he stood?
As Mack cut a couple of saplings to fashion a travois, he thought about the afterlife. He wasn’t a religious man, but couldn’t help but wonder why, if mankind had a soul, every living creature didn’t have a soul. And what was up with soul belief anyway? If there really was a God, and a soul, then what was the big deal about dying? If people lived forever in another dimension, why was everyone so damn scared of dying?
After field dressing the deer, Mack dragged it out of the woods. If humankind was created in the likeness of God, then surely God was disappointed. Because what kind of god felt good about creatures of their own making who went on to produce weapons used to hunt other humans?
At the truck, he lowered the tailgate, heaved the deer into the bed, and headed back to Salt Lake. An hour later, he dropped the deer off at a local abattoir with instructions to donate the processed venison to the homeless shelter.
As soon as he pulled in the driveway, Mack knew something was wrong. For starters, Paula was sitting on the front porch. She only did that when she was waiting to talk to him about something important, and usually something bad. Plus, Paula hated the cold and it was damn chilly. Yeah, this was going to be a doozie.
“Someone die?” Mack said.
Mack grimaced. “Lovely conversation, I’m guessing.”
“He says you’re going to lose your job if you participate in Gil’s execution. That he’s got a meeting with someone in the governor’s office Monday morning. He says the warden is violating state law by having you on the squad—you being Gil’s friend.”
Mack sat down on the top step. He hated it when Paula was anxious. It made him feel responsible. Even if she didn’t understand about soldiers, she didn’t deserve getting dragged deeper into this mess.
“He said you would lose your retirement benefits.”
“He’s upset you?” Mack said. “He’s bluffing. We’re not violating law. Varying from normal procedure, maybe, but not law. He’s scaring you to get revenge on me.”
“I know this is important to you,” Paula said, “but our retirement years are important to us. I just wish there—.”
“Want me to tell Gil I won’t do it?” Mack said
Paula sat down on the step beside Mack.
“Not,” she said, “if you can’t get to that place on your own.”
The hell did that mean? What place? A place where Gil no longer mattered? Mack felt as if he were serving a dozen masters: Gil, Paula, God, Warden Taylor, Curtis, and his own damn prickly conscience. What was right and what was wrong, anyway? Consensus? Like the mob ever got anything right. If he wanted to act outside what other people thought was normal, that was on him.
“I don’t think I can,” Mack said, annoyed with Paula, then annoyed with himself for not trying harder to see Paula’s side. “Curtis is a bitter bastard that’s miserable unless he’s in conflict with something.” Why had he said that? Even if true, and it was, what the hell could Paula do about it?
“Isn’t it possible that that’s true,” Paula said, “and Curtis is still right? And I wish you wouldn’t call him that name.”
Jesus. Paula always defended her little brother when everyone else recognized him for the asshole he was. A grown-ass man shouldn’t need protecting. This was hard enough. Hell, Mack didn’t even know how he was going to sneak a bullet into the execution chamber; how the warden would react if Mack was caught with a live round not prison-issue. Maybe he should take a chance on getting issued a weapon with a live round. Gil would never know one way or the other.
After the two sat a while, Paula placed her hand on his shoulder. “Dinner will be ready in fifteen minutes.”
The next morning, after a Sunday breakfast where Mack had made a special effort to be nice, he headed to the prison to visit with Gil. Paula had said little at breakfast and the tension between them had felt like an electric fence waiting to be touched. He should not have called Curtis a bastard, at least not in front of Paula. He’d wanted to say he was sorry, but feared an apology would only introduce more tension, cause another spat. He suspected Paula felt the same way, that both of them had decided to leave the matter alone.
Gil Coker sat with his hands clasped between his knees. “It’s not that I want to die,” he said. “Scares the hell out of me. But it’s what I deserve—for what I did. I’m not trying to make a statement. I’m not a hero poster boy for death penalty folks. Just trying to do the right thing.”
“You were the best platoon sergeant a butterbar lieutenant could have asked for,” Mack said. “The best, period. You never once faltered under fire. I saw you, in the worst conditions, take care of boys too scared to piss in the jungle, but something’s not right. Something that, if you remembered it, would cast this whole thing in a different light.”
“Maybe there was a gunshot?” Gil said.
“What do you mean?”
“This can never leave this cell. I need you to respect that.”
“If that’s the way you want it,” Mack said, but still hoping he was about to hear something that might justify the warden requesting another stay.
“Every once in a while, I think I remember I heard a gunshot.”
“You think you remember? Your gunshot?”
“No, I don’t remember shooting Strick. I may have heard a gunshot, from a hunter in the hills—off the road, but close. I’m not saying I did, but maybe. Something—that gunshot in the woods I may not have heard—caused me to crouch. I was in a foxhole in the jungle outside Tra Noung. You following me?”
Mack nodded. He was following Gil, but wasn’t sure he wanted to. Not back to Vietnam, not back to that suffocating jungle.
“Things smelled of wet canvas, gun oil, rotted leaves, and that nasty sucking mud. Insects, biting, stinging. The birds had disappeared. The canopy was thick with shafts of light here and there. There were sounds, movement through the undergrowth. A centipede, one of those red-headed foot-long ones with orange legs, crawled over my arm. Seconds later, artillery shells—not light-ass 105’s, but eight-inch 200-lb bastards sounding like Superman flying over. But no impacts—no explosions. I think when I realized no artillery was exploding, I came back to Utah, to the present. Does that make sense?”
“I’m with you,” Mack said. As he listened to Gil, he felt the press of the jungle. A wave of anxiety came on, as if he’d been transported back in time and set down in a firefight, into an immobilizing gut-churning fear of not knowing if you were going to be alive three seconds later.
“You ever experienced anything like that?” Gil said.
“No, not exactly,” Mack said. “For me, it’s a weight I can never set down. Sometimes, I feel like a dumb animal pulling a plow through red clay. Loud noises make me jump like hell, cause me to get jittery, irritable. Then I’m hell to be around until I talk to Paula about it.”
“I never did,” Gil said. “Not before this. But once I realized where I really was, I crawled out of the drainage ditch. Whole thing lasted less than thirty seconds. Strick was lying behind my truck beside the flat tire we’d pulled off. He had a bad chest wound, the kind in Nam no one ever survived. Mack, I don’t even remember getting my rifle off the back seat, but there I stood with it tucked against my shoulder. And there he was bleeding in the grass. Dead, and I don’t remember shooting him.”
“You never told the police or your attorney?” Mack said. “This could get you another stay. Give us time to put together an appeal.”
“No. I don’t want another stay. I don’t want to appeal. I want you to listen. First, I’m not sure it happened. Even now it seems like I’m making it up as I go along—like I’m inventing a cover for what I did over there. But more important, an excuse for things I allowed to happen in country, in the name of keeping soldiers safe. Those things have to be atoned for.”
Mack wanted to say he didn’t understand what the hell Gil was talking about, but he knew exactly the weight of the pain—the pain of the weight. “You did your job,” Mack said, knowing that wasn’t what Gil needed to hear. “You rendered to Caesar. That’s what was asked of you, like everybody else.” What Gil needed was absolution, but not from Mack, a soldier who’d wrestled the same horrors. Where was a god when you needed one?
“It’s not that simple anymore,” Gil said, wrapping his arms around his stomach as if it was hurting him. “You think it’s possible,” he said, “to be sorry for one set of reasons, and for another set, be proud of the same things you’re sorry for?”
“I truly don’t know,” Mack said, not sure what Gil meant. “What do you think?”
Gil bent over his knees and started to rock.
“Used to think it,” Gil said. “Now, I think I was telling myself what I needed to hear on the inside to tolerate living with me on the outside, with things I did.”
Gil started rocking harder, arms tighter around his stomach like something terrible was eating its way out of him.
“I’m afraid to die for what I did,” Gil said. “Maybe there really is a God. A God that says we should have known better, that says there’s no excuse for killing boy-soldiers in a foreign country we had no business in, no justification for dropping mortar rounds on villages we knew damn well were full of women and children.” Gil was crying now. “I just don’t want to answer for eternity for things I did in Vietnam. That’s all hell is, Mack—facing the pain you’ve inflicted on innocent people.”
Fucking governments, Mack thought. Good at convincing young men to die for causes. Every damn war cemetery in the world was filled with headstones of children. Boys eager to have their souls stamped with the words honor and valor. Gil had been the best of the best and here he sat, tearing his own soul apart. Having nothing else to offer, Mack slid closer on the bunk and wrapped his arm around Gil’s shoulder.
Eighteen hours later, Mack stood with four other prison guards outside the weapons vault in the prison’s supply room. Earlier that morning, he’d apologized to Paula for calling Curtis a bastard and then compromised by agreeing he would not try to slip a live round into his rifle. Hell, maybe he would not even pull the trigger.
With practiced precision, Nance Phillips issued weapons to the execution squad.
“These weapons are loaded with a live round, one each,” she said. “Once you’ve fired your weapon, Do Not—I say again. Do Not—eject the round. I will collect the brass when I receipt the weapon back from you. I’ll escort you to the Romper Room. I’ll be outside during the execution. I’ll walk you back to the supply room for weapon turn-in. Any questions?”
The group of five glanced at one another and shook their heads. Someone asked who would give the signal to fire. “Just like you practiced,” Phillips told them. “Nothing is changed.” The warden would give a preparatory command of ‘Ready;’ then an execution command of ‘Fire.’ “Good to go?”
The group said they were.
“Jenkins. Sign here,” Phillips said, shoving a clipboard with a hand-receipt at a guard. “I get my weapon back, you’ll get your hand-receipt back. For some baffling reason, you’re able to leave this prison with my weapon, you’ll owe me for one 30-30 Winchester.” She repeated the hand-receipt process for the other three guards until she came to Mack. “You know the drill, Captain,” she said. “One signature, one weapon.”
Mack signed the hand-receipt and handed her back the clipboard.
“God, I think I’m going . . .” Officer Phillips said, and then collapsed against Mack. As he struggled to hold her up, she grabbed him by the forearm and slipped a round of ammunition into his hand. “From Warden T,” she whispered. Then, “Sorry, Captain. Time to time, dizzy spell catches me.”
The other guards hurried to help, but quickly as she had swooned, she was upright.
“I’m fine, guys. Really. Hands off. Let’s get to the chamber.”
“Jesus, Phillips,” one of the guards said. “Scare the hell out of us, why don’t you.”
The guards shouldered their weapons and walked single file to the execution chamber. When Phillips loudly reminded the guards to not eject their round after firing, Mack chambered the live round into his rifle. The closer they came to the execution chamber, the quieter the squad became. By the time they arrived at the door, the group was silent. Warden Taylor was waiting in the hall.
“Any regrets, say it now. After this door,” the warden knocked on the door leading into the execution chamber, “no one leaves until after the deceased’s body has been removed. Phillips will tell you when. Second thoughts?”
There were none. The warden opened the chamber door and motioned the squad inside.
The room smelled like crayons, reminding Mack of why the guards called it the Romper Room. The smell reminded Mack of the grease pencils they’d used in Vietnam to trace on plastic map covers. On one side of the concrete execution chamber was a large wooden chair bolted to the floor. Thick leather straps hung from each arm and from the front legs. Stacked in a U-shape around the chair were stacks of sand bags to absorb the bullets. The squad entered a smaller room across the chamber. Inside, there were five eye-level firing ports that opened into the execution chamber. The ports were big enough to poke a barrel through and aim, but too small to see much else.
“Barrels through the ports, keep your safeties on until the ready command,” Warden Taylor said, and then closed the door.
The small room was hot and stuffy. Someone passed gas and someone called them a nasty ass. Mack told them to knock it off. With the door closed, the only light was what filtered in through the firing ports. Mack unslung his rifle. He knew the M16 military round travelled at 3100 feet per second. He figured the heavier, blunter 30-30 bullet would travel slower, say 2500 feet per second. The firing squad members shuffled their feet and spoke in hushed voices. A minute later, the warden announced, “Soldier walking.”
By Mack’s calculation, the bullet would cross the 20-foot execution chamber in less than 1/125thth of a second. To measure how long it took to blink, Mack blinked several times. Seemed less than half a second—maybe slow as a quarter second. Much faster than the human eye can blink, lumps of lead would soon tear five holes through Gil’s heart. Seconds later, if not sooner, he’d be dead.
Through his firing port, Mack could see Gil’s waist as he shuffled across the chamber. He wanted to speak to him, to say he was forgiven, remind him that he loved him, but it was too late—wrong place, wrong time, wrong fucking century. Besides, who was he to forgive anybody? Soon, Gil would pass from this earth, taking with him his memories, hopes, disappointments, successes, failures.
The escort guards strapped Gil into the chair. Gil thanked them for treating him well while he had been incarcerated. “Welcome,” one of them said.
Was Strick’s widow there to witness? If it would help her heal, Mack hoped she was, but then he hoped she wasn’t, that she would not put herself through the ordeal of watching a man shot to death even if the state had ordained the killing. Gil had hurt a lot of people by killing Strick Cotton: his widow Maddy, their children, grandchildren, friends—all of them would live the rest of their lives with holes torn in their hearts by the bullet Gil had fired.
The warden asked Gil if he wanted to say anything and Gil said he did. Mack imagined Gil looking through the glass window into the viewing section, straining to see into a semi-dark room full of shadows.
“I don’t ask Mrs. Cotton and Strick’s family to forgive me,” Gil said, his voice quivering. “Too much to ask. I am sorry to my core, but I know being sorry is an insult to the life I took . . . and that’s why I’m here.” The warden asked him if he was done. “And to the soldiers I served with,” Gil said. “If I’ve let you down, I’m sorry for that, too. That’s all, Warden. Send me.”
The warden kicked the door, then opened it a few inches. Light fell across the grim faces of the men inside. They pulled their rifles to their cheeks. “Safeties,” someone said, and the five guards placed their thumbs on their weapons’ safety switch.
Through his firing port, Mack sighted his weapon on the three-inch circle of white paper pinned to Gil’s chest. He thought of the story Gil had once shared in Vietnam of him gathering hay with his father on their cattle ranch in Wyoming. He’d told of the vast acres of tall green grass, clear-running streams, and air so clean it hurt to breathe it. His father had sounded like the kind of father Mack had never known. A war had taken Mack’s father and now a different kind of war was taking another father’s son. Maybe it was best Gil’s parents had already passed.
“Forgive me,” Mack whispered, sending his request out to Gil, to Gil’s father, to his own father, to God, to anyone or any entity in this or any other universe that cared.
“Ready,” the warden said. Five safety levers clicked off.
Through the window, Mack watched several birds, wrens, he thought, flitting around the vehicles hauling luggage to the plane. A second later, they were gone. In the seat beside him, Paula opened a travel guide to Vietnam and unfolded a map of Hanoi.
“You think Maddy Cotton,” she said, “will ever forgive Gil?”
Mack didn’t answer. It had finally come to him what his grandmother used to say about birds, that her loved ones came back as redbirds. He smiled at the thought. Hell, maybe good people like Grandmother got to come back as cardinals, but what about bad people, or good people who’ve done bad things—like Gil. No self-respecting god would recycle a murderer. But maybe Gil wasn’t a murderer and the whole damn thing had been a casualty of war.
“Did you hear what I said?” Paula said.
“Of course,” Mack said, struggling to remember.
“About Maddy ever forgiving Gil?” she said, elbowing him in the side.
“I was just about to say that it didn’t seem like it when she tore up Gil’s check.”
And what about Strick Cotton? Mack thought. It didn’t seem right that both the murdered and murderer would be given the same second chance. He wondered how Warden T. was enjoying the retirement forced upon him by Kiley’s complaints to the Tribune. One head to please the masses, the damn governor had demanded for failure to follow procedure, for letting a friend shoot a friend. At nearly 80-years-old, Taylor had volunteered to retire—as long as Mack was left alone. A soldier’s soldier. Finally got your revenge, didn’t you, Curtis. Bastard.
Mack glanced at Paula to make sure she had not somehow heard his thought.
The wrens were back. They landed on top of the luggage hauler beneath Mack’s window. What did he know about God, or God’s will, or, for that matter, any damn thing. If God wanted to send Gil back, hell, as a damn yard chicken, so be it. But in his next life, don’t ask him to wage war. War: the gift that never stops giving.
“Is someone from the orphanage going to meet us at the airport?” Paula said, tracing the map with her finger until she came to the orphanage.
When Mack didn’t answer, Paula gently elbowed him in the side.
Yes,” Mack said, protecting his side with his arm. “I heard you—and a representative from the US Embassy.”
“This money is going to mean a lot to those kids,” Paula said, folding the map and tucking it back inside the travel guide.
Cover Image: Goya y Lucientes, Francisco de. “The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid or “The Executions.” 1814. Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional Del Prado.