The bold lettered headline of the newspaper sums up the anxious mood of the whole community: EXECUTION SET FOR TODAY. The neatly folded newspaper had been set on the food tray with the headline conspicuously turned facing up, done that way by one of the attending guards. If the guard was Flannery, then it was done as a cruel reminder, but if it was Simpson, then it was a friendly attempt at propriety. Either way, Terrence Watkins is left alone in his cell to stare at the headline as he cuts a sausage link and plops the severed half in his mouth and chews on it. He is permitted, on his last day on earth, to have a hearty meal of his choice. He had chosen scrambled eggs, sausage links, pancakes with butter and syrup, and some juice. The meal is laid out on the tray nicely and is surprisingly still hot, though the food is just as bland and ho-hum as all the other prison food he’s had over the last five years. He puts his fork down and flips the newspaper open and skims the article that runs beneath the headline.
The news article is written by one Darren Townsend who was fortunate enough to get the story back at its inception when he had just joined the local newspaper out of college. He had good grammar and could meet a deadline so was hired and given the story to start his journalistic career. Back then, nobody in the newsroom could have imagined that a simple domestic violence story from the ‘avenues’ would grow to such proportion and lead to such broad social implications. Townsend, an English major, was able to adeptly report on the case from start to finish. At first, though, he hedged his position by vacillating between whether it was a mercy killing or cold-blooded murder. He finally came down on the side of zealously convicting the unrepentant Terrence Watkins. It was a safe and shrewd position for Townsend to take and his articles on the case grew more and more into social commentaries on morality, justice, and human decency, making Townsend somewhat of a local celebrity as a purveyor of information and an ethical pundit. His expositions on the matter dominated the front page until the verdict of ‘guilty’ came down. After the verdict, Townsend turned his attention on covering the gubernatorial race and then on the newly elected governor. Terrence Watkins figures his execution today will be somewhat of a closure for Townsend who had long since shifted his focus to dogging after the governor.
The article follows the usual format starting off by reiterating the facts that Terrence Watkins will be executed today by hanging, that there will be no more appeals, and that only a last moment reprieve from the Governor could stay the execution. The article indicates that a reprieve would be highly unlikely and reminds the reader that the now Governor of the state was, in fact, the prosecuting District Attorney in the Watkins case and had called the crime back then an heinous act of savagery that clearly mounted to a capital offense. The article contends that it was the Governor’s due diligence and energy in pursuing the case back then that played a key factor in vaulting him later into the Governorship. The article reemphasizes the fact that any act of mercy or compassion now on the Governor’s part would be a betrayal of public trust. The middle of the article simply recaps the gruesome detail that Terrence Watkins had shot his wife in the head while she slept. The balance of the article goes back over old quotes from Watkins’ neighbors and ex-jurist in the case and then concludes with a Yale study concerning the sociopathic behavior of a murderer, which Townsend aptly paraphrases and interprets for the reader.
Terrence Watkins folds the newspaper back the way it was and lays it back on the tray. He scoops a clump of yellow, scrambled egg onto his fork and places the clump in his mouth as he listens to the hoots and shouts from the outraged citizens protesting just beyond the wall of the prison. One vociferous faction out there believes his execution is just and must be carried out and that Watkins is a “monster” or “demon” while another faction feels Watkins is just a victim of misfortune and cries out for “mercy” and “compassion.” They have been out there, off and on, for years trying to out-shout each other and get their voices heard on the matter. Watkins has grown accustom to the fuss outside so it doesn’t annoy him anymore. His concern now is that he will be unable to leave his daughter and granddaughter anything. Watkins, after all, had been just a mechanic at the local automobile dealership where he worked for twenty-seven years and made a modest living. He and his wife had married right out of high school and have a twenty-six year old daughter who is married now with a daughter of her own and who is riddled with guilt for running away from home shortly after her mother’s health began to deteriorate and was gone during her mother’s final agonizing years. She now blames her dad for not doing enough for her mother and bringing such unbearable shame upon the family. The illness and Watkins’ legal fees took everything he had saved and worked for. Watkins just wishes he could leave his daughter something to help her cope with it all – something to console her, but there was nothing left to give.
“They want to skin you alive,” Guard Flannery says alluding to the noisy crowd beyond the wall. He had approached the cell stealthily and his profile now stands on the other side of the cell bars. He has a protruding brow and chin and a stout physique garbed in a tight-fitting blue uniform. “Doesn’t that shame you?” he reproaches. “I know it would shame me … hearing my follow neighbors curse and damn me because of my sins. You offended them, Watkins, and now you’re going to hell for it,” he decries as he stares straight down the hall and not at Watkins. “I can’t blame them. It’s an abomination, shooting your poor wife in the head. It’s time to stand up and be a man about it and confess your sins. That’s what I would do.” Flannery sermonizes with a stern countenance and waits for a response from Watkins. “I’ve seen tougher guys than you break,” he smirks still staring down the hall. “Seen them break into tears just before the noose goes around their neck. You’re no different. When it is time, you’ll ball like a baby begging for mercy, confessing your transgression against God and ask for forgiveness.” Flannery pauses and then finally glowers over coldly at Watkins. “You’re no different,” he states and silently steps back and disappears.
The metal gate at the end of the cellblock swings open with an ear-piercing squeal of its hinges and then the loud clang of it shutting that ricochets off the concrete walls down the long corridor. Following that are two sets of resounding footsteps treading toward Watkins’ cell. Watkins carves out a wedged section of stacked pancakes with his fork and shoves the piece into his mouth as he listens to the approaching steps. In the lead are the light and brisk steps of Guard Simpson. Simpson is a skinny, nervous sort who tries to get along with everyone and just wants to make the best out of any situation. He has a chipper gait. Behind him are the plodding footsteps of Watkins’ attorney. The attorney has asthma and wheezes as he walks.
Simpson appears with key ready. “Terry, I have your attorney here,” he tells Watkins as he unlocks the cell door and swings it open. He enters and steps to the side so the attorney can enter into the closet-like cell. He is a corpulent bloke that perspires profusely and wears his usual rumpled grey flannel suit with the loosen shirt collar and necktie. He awkwardly shuffles about looking for a place to sit. It is either next to Watkins on the cot or on the toilet seat. The attorney reluctantly settles next to Watkins on the cot and sets his briefcase down on the floor next to him.
“Everything okay?” he foolishly asks as he draws a hanky from his pocket and wipes the perspiration off his forehead. “I’m sorry, Terry,” he quickly adds, catching his gaffe and becomes quiet and stares down at the hanky he holds above his lap. “I did the best I could,” he morosely says without looking up. “You know I did everything I could for you, don’t you?” he humbly declares.
“You did your best,” Watkins assures him.
“There’s just nothing else I can do,” he concedes. “You…you just made a terrible mistake, Terry. What could I have done? They found you there sitting in the chair with your face buried in your hands and blood all over you,” his attorney recites without looking up at Watkins. “Had she left a note, something stating her intentions then maybe I could have gotten you off. Just a technicality, I suppose, but that might have turned the tide, swayed the jury. Without it, there was nothing else I could do. It’s just bad no matter how you looked at it. I did my best with what I had, Terry, you know that.” The attorney affirms seeking some sort of absolution.
“Yes, you did your best,” Watkins reassures him.
“Yes…yes,” the attorney says nodding his head slowly. “We put up a good defense; I thought I had them there for awhile, but the photos did us in. You know I ran out every possible appeal I could for you. The appeal court was just stuck in their ways, just wanted to expedite the matter and dispose of it. The bastards,” the lawyer says feigning contempt as he slowly shakes his head. “The people demanded justice. What can you do?” The attorney stops and looks over at Watkins. “Do you need anything--cigarettes…writing paper?”
“No, I’m fine.”
The attorney turns and opens his briefcase and takes out some papers. “We have some forms here that need to be signed, just as a formality.”
Watkins watches as his attorney fumbles through the forms in his briefcase, shuffling them into some type of order. Watkins has become use to formalities, as they have been the only way of living left to him. “Here, you need to sign this one so I can dispose of any of your belongings.” The attorney hands Watkins the form and then draws a pen from his shirt pocket liner.
“Do I have any belongings left?” Watkins asks satirically.
“No…no…none that I know of. This one is for the dispose…dispose…disposing of your remains.”
“Yes…yes, I suppose that still needs to be taken care of.”
“And this one releases all parties from any and all liability arousing out of the disposition of your case and waiving any rights your family or heirs may have for any damages arising out of any negligence by such parties.”
“Yes…yes, I suppose I’m the only one responsible for all of this,” Watkins tells his attorney as he hands back the signed form.
The attorney takes the last of the forms and neatly evens them all together and slides them back into his briefcase, snapping the case latch closed. “Are you sure you don’t need anything?” The attorney asks again as he stands and motions to Guard Simpson that he plans to leave now.
“No….no, I’m quite fine. Thank you for all you’ve done,” Watkins adds to comfort the fellow who genuinely seems quite upset by the entire visit.
His attorney lays his hand on Watkins’ shoulder and rests it there. “You’ve just done wrong, Terry.” His attorney nods his head in commiseration and then steps outside the cell.
Guard Simpson follows the attorney out and closes the cell door and locks it. “Your daughter is waiting for you,” Simpson tells Watkins through the bars.
“Is my granddaughter with her?” Watkins asks.
“I don’t think so,” Guard Simpson answers regrettably.
“Here, can you take my tray. I’m done eating.” Watkins asks Guard Simpson as he slides the food tray out through the narrow slot in the bars of the door. Guard Simpson takes the tray and he and the attorney walk off down the hollow, dimly lit corridor.
Watkins’ cell is eight feet by six with one cot, a sink facing a small mirror hung on the wall, a toilet basin and an assortment of personal items stored under the cot or on a window ledge. Watkins has been cooped up in this cage since his last appeal some six months or so. There were times when his isolation and confinement played on his mind and caused him terrible anguish. He had to remind himself at those times the reason he was there. His wife was afflicted with an excruciating illness, a morbid disease, and she had begged him repeatedly to help her, to have mercy on her. He didn’t murder his wife to rid himself of a burden or out of sexual frustration as the prosecutor argued, but out of love for his wife and now it is all playing out as he figured and he has to accept it. Watkins turns the faucet on and fills his cupped hands with water and splashes the water over his face. He draws a towel and dries his face off. He puts some tap water on his black comb and runs the wet comb through his grimy blond hair, following the stroke of the comb with the flat palm of his other hand to smooth out any unruly hairs. In the mirror is the aged, gaunt face of a prisoner and he sees behind him the image of his bedridden wife, withering away in pain, her body contorted in agony and her mournfully lusterless eyes pleading for mercy. It pains him to think of that once vibrant, young girl he had married being that way. He checks again his hair and places the comb down and closes his eyes.
“Daddy, are you okay?” Watkins’ daughter asks in the same quivery voice his wife had.
“Yes, Cupcake, I’m okay,” Watkins answers as he opens his eyes and looks over at her.
His daughter stands on the other side of the barred door of Watkins’ cell under the supervision of Guard Simpson, personal visitors are not normally allowed in the cellblock. She is plump with a disheveled appearance, a weary, fretful face, and straight, oily blond hair. She is dressed in a drab housedress and a worn, cardigan sweater that droops over her slouching shoulders. She has her hands stuffed in the pockets of the sweater and her eyes glisten from tears.
“Did you bring Kelley?” Watkins asks with anticipation.
“No, no, I left her home,” his daughter murmurs somewhat apologetically and sniffs. “She’s been through enough,” adding as she looks up at her dad. “I felt she didn’t need to go through anymore. I just couldn’t bring her…couldn’t!” She insists and then takes her hanky from her sweater pocket and wipes her nose and eyes. “You understand, don’t you?” she asks searching her father’s eyes for consent. “I just want her to grow up healthy and happy.”
“We all want to grow up healthy and happy,” Watkins says. “I’m glad you came, though. I was worried you wouldn’t show and I wanted to see you.”
“I wasn’t planning on coming. I didn’t want to come,” she blubbers in a wobbly voice. “There’s so much to do with Kelley’s birthday party and all. We’re planning on ten of her friends over and there’s just not enough time in the day to get it all organized with wrapping and decorations and all. There will be balloons and streamers and party favors, games and prizes…and a wonderful cake.”
“The party will work out just fine,” Watkins offers encouragement. “Birthday parties are so special,” he adds wistfully, with downcast eyes, “the cake and presents and fun games. You’ll be surprised how real and important all that seems now. Give Kelley my best birthday wishes,” he adds looking back up.
“Oh, Daddy!” his daughter gushes out. “I feel so ashamed…so wretched. Why is this happening to me? It’s everywhere, in the newspapers, television, that’s all people talk about. They won’t leave me alone. It’s overwhelming and I can’t escape it.”
Terrence Watkins could only comfort his sobbing daughter by stroking her arm with his hand through the bars, which Guard Simpson allows though that too is a form of physical contact and against the rules. Terence and his daughter have had a strained relationship over the years. Her mother’s illness came in her teen years and it was difficult for her to accept all that’s happened. As her mother’s illness worsens, his daughter became more and more rebellious and distant until finally she ran away from home at seventeen and disappeared for two years. Terrence Watkins felt that might have been for the best as her mother’s degenerating illness left her bedridden and in constant agony. In the last year of her life, the mother she knew was no more. What was left was a shell of a woman who wailed and moaned in anguish most of the time because she couldn’t cover up her ghastly pale and frail face with a blush or a lipstick.
“We should have put her in a sanatorium,” his daughter insists. “They could have helped her. I should have stayed and taken care of her.”
“You did what you could, Cupcake. She was always very proud of you.”
“Why have you done this?” she blurts out. “I didn’t want to be here today,” she declares with stirring eyes. “I should be shopping or planning Kelley’s birthday party. This is no place to be ... in a prison. It’s sick and morbid. I hate it! I shouldn’t be here. I can’t bear it, Daddy,” she pleads. “I couldn’t bring Kelley here… here to this hell. I told Kelley I will be home soon and that she and I will go get some ice cream and put all this behind us. You’ve never done a bad thing your whole life. Why did you do this?” she asks bewilderingly. “Mom was okay, she was getting by. I would have stayed with her if it was getting too hard on you. Why? Why did you do it?” she earnestly questions. “I always feel that someone else is making the decisions for me and everything is turning out terribly. You’re not God,” she woefully impugns.
“No, Cupcake, but everyone dies sooner or later,” Watkins softly replies as he continues to stoke his daughter’s arms to comfort her. “Here, I want you to have these,” Watkins tells her as he draws some photos and two envelopes from beneath his pillow to give her. Guard Simpson nods that it is okay and the daughter takes the items. “Some photos of better times,” he tells her. “I’m just sorry you and Kelley had to get caught up in all this. It’s not fair, though it’s the way it is. I just hope you and Kelley will be okay and have a normal life.”
His daughter turns her mournful eyes away and sighs.
Guard Flannery reappears escorting the warden and followed by the prison pastor. The warden is a robust and hearty looking man, middle-aged with traces of grey in his short, well-trimmed hair, and smartly dressed in a tailored grey suit. He has a healthy complexion and polished demeanor. Terrence Watkins and the warden are about the same age though Terry is scrawny and has pockmarks on his gaunt face from a childhood ailment; in fact, a jurist was overheard commenting after the trial that Watkins looked like a killer. Terrence Watkins has no problem with the warden who has always been forthright and fair with him.
Guard Flannery motions the daughter to move aside so he can unlock the cell and let him and the warden in. “You’re not going to do anything crazy are you?” Flannery warns Watkins as they enter. “You quiet types sometimes get funny ideas about trying to take us down and escape. “Forget it Watkins,” Flannery commands in a threatening manner. “There’s no way out of this so you might as well just accept it. Get any of those foolish thoughts out of your head.”
The warden enters and calmly mentions to Terrence that it is time and they need to get ready.
Guard Flannery unfurls the leather-strap shackles and fastens Watkins’ feet in the leg irons and cuffs his hands to the side and then cinches up the leather straps making it almost impossible for Watkins to move his limbs. Flannery then nudges Watkins out of the cell, followed by the observant warden.
“I can’t be part of this,” Terrence Watkins’ daughter cries out and trembles. “This is all too real!”
The warden tells her she can wait in the cell and he will return after and they can talk and he will make sure she gets back to her car okay. She thanks him for being so kind and tells him there is not much decency left in the world. He tells her she just needs to look for it. The entourage heads off slowly down the corridor. She enters the cell and sits on the cot to wait.
The entourage moves in a slow cadence with the warden in the lead. Behind the warden is Terrence Watkins who shuffles in his leg irons and behind him are the two guards. The pastor walks to the side of Watkins. The pastor is an elderly man of diminutive stature wearing black shoes, slacks, and black neckband shirt with the white collar. He carries a large black, leather bound bible.
“You haven’t shown much inclination toward prayer,” the pastor finally speaks to Terrence. “I suppose you would like to visit now with God and ask for forgiveness and mercy?”
“I’m not a religion man, pastor,” Watkins confides.
“Well, we all carry with us part of the divine. You must have some beliefs or philosophy to guide you?”
“I don’t have a philosophy.” Watkins answers abruptly as he tries to capture in his mind the image of Kelley opening up her birthday presents and somehow superimposing himself there at her party and joining in joy and festivities.
“Do you want to confess, my son, and purge your soul?” The pastor’s voice intrudes the daydream.
“I don’t have much to say along those lines,” Watkins grudgingly answers. “If you want me to say I’ve been hurting then, yes, I’ve been hurting a long time. If you want me to say that my life is coming to an end and I don’t have much to show for it then, yes, my life is coming to an end and there’s not much left to it. I wish it had turned out differently, but it didn’t. But if you want me to say I’ve done wrong, I can’t. I did what I did for the reasons I had at the time and that’s all there is to it. Perhaps our gods are just different. Perhaps my god isn’t in that book of yours.”
“I will pray for you.”
The entourage comes to a heavy metal door and pauses in front of it for a moment to gather their wits. The warden swings the door open and the entourage enters onto the scaffold of the gallows. The gallows is in a large room surrounded by three cinder block walls austerely bare except for the black phone on one of the walls and a large clock on another. The room is enclosed in front by a single Plexiglas sheet separating the room from the gallery section. Flashbulbs pop from the other side of the Plexiglas and the flashes briefly illuminate the faces in the gallery that quickly fade into x-ray-like skulls. The room is sound proof so the attendees in the gallery cannot be heard or hear. There is a medical examiner sitting in a chair to one side.
Guard Simpson steps over to Watkins and swings the noose over and lowers it down over Watkins’ head. He meticulously places the noose around Watkins’ neck, making sure it is set just right. As he adjusts the noose, he looks Watkins in the eyes. “I’m sorry about your wife,” Simpson utters condolingly. Watkins acknowledges him with a slight nod of his head. Simpson then moves Watkins forward to stand atop the trap door of the gallows.
The warden moves in front of Watkins to pronounce the final edict. “Terrence Watkins, you have been found guilty by your peers of first degree murder and have been sentenced to hang until you are pronounced dead. Do you have anything you wish to say at this time?”
Watkins shakes his head and lowers his eyes.
The warden searches Watkins for an answer and then steps back and nods at Guard Flannery who is standing next to a lever.
There is a black phone on the wall, but the governor is attending a conference and had decided sometime ago to accept Terrence Watkins’ fate as a fait accompli. The governor was, after all, the ambitious prosecutor at the trial and in his closing statements convinced most people there that, in deed, Terrence Watkins did murder his wife in cold blood and should be hanged for such an ungodly act. He reminded the jury that Watkins had given his wife sleeping pills earlier so she would not awaken at the time of the shooting. That was a sure sign of premeditation and therefore a capital offence according to the law. There were doctors that testified that Terrence Watkins’ wife could have lived for many years even in her degenerated state and there was an expert that testified that Terrence Watkins’ wife could have lived in relative comfort with proper care and special treatments. Terrence Watkins remembers thinking back then how that phrase “relative comfort” seemed so cruel given his wife’s mental anguish and the hell she was living in. A hell she did not deserve.
“The Lord is my shepherd,” the pastor begins reading in a low, resonant and sedate voice, “I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still water.” The pastor reads from the book without looking up from the page as Flannery places his hand on the lever. “He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’ sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art me….”
Then there is Terrence Watkins and his wife strolling along the ocean shore together….