“Today’s the day huh Jim?”
“Yep, today’s the day Guard Norris.”
The door opened with a rattle and a clank as Jim stepped out into the concrete hallway. Morning sunlight reflected off the clean gray floors held shadows of the bars on the windows above.
“How are you feeling?” Norris reached out his hand. Jim shook it.
“Pretty well, Norris. I slept like the dead.” He laughed.
Norris paused. “… yeah.”
They turned and began walking towards the iron door at the end of the hall. Jim’s chains jingled softly.
“I picked it up on the way over, Bubba’s chicken and waffles, the best in all of Virginia, or so they say.” Norris opened the door and beyond was a small, empty room. The walls were neutral blue, it was supposed to be calming, Norris just thought it made blood stains stand out. They walked to the table in the middle of the room upon which there was a tray piled high with chicken legs and thighs, crispy breaded and dripping with grease. “Six pieces of extra crispy chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, waffle fries and two cokes. Need anything else?”
Jim stared at the table for a moment, “Wanna grab another chair and join me?”
“Sure Jim, I’ll be back in a second. Why don’t you get started without me?”
Norris unhooked a heavy keychain from his belt and undid the restraints on the prisoner’s wrists and feet. He knew they wouldn’t need to be refastened. Jim sat down and picked up a piece of chicken as the guard retrieved a folding chair from a closet. He sat down across from his friend.
“Hey Norris, thanks for this. It’s about as close to perfect as a guy could ask for.”
Jim bit into the chicken. “Mmmmm…. Goddamn that’s good. I told you about my daddy right, Norris?”
“I think so Jim, he was a farmer, right?”
“Yes he was, but he was a hell of a cook too. His fried chicken would bring a tear to your eye. What did your daddy do?”
“We’ve talked about this before Jim, my father was a police officer in Charlotte.” Jim dug into his meal, Norris quietly waited.
Some time later Jim wiped his mouth on his jumpsuit sleeve and belched across the table. Norris chuckled and Jim smiled.
“Hah, nice one. How was it?”
“It was good man, real good.”
“So, are you ready?”
“Yeah, I guess I am.”
“Are you sure? I mean, you can take your time if you need to.”
“Naw man,” Jim smiled again as he stood. “There’s no time like the present.”
The chains, now hanging loose around the belt on Jim’s waist, made their faint music as the two men walked silently back down the same empty hallway. At the other end they arrived at a door; it was thick metal and had a red light above the doorframe. Jim stood and stared at it.
“What do you think it’ll be like?”
“I don’t know,”
“I guess it’ll hurt.”
“They say it’s designed so it won’t.”
“I don’t think anyone has been able to tell them otherwise.”
They stared at the door a full minute until Jim broke the silence, his voice now barely above a whisper. “Do you think I did okay?”
“What do you mean?”
“My life man, do you think I did okay?”
“Sure Jim, sure you did okay.”
“How long have we known each other?”
“Well Jim, you were the first prisoner I ever booked into the Row. I guess that means we met almost two years ago.”
“Two years, Norris. You wanna hear something funny?
“Sure Jim, I’d like that.”
“I’ve been alive thirty three years. I’ve been married; I had a son. I was a contributing member of society until I messed up.”
Norris stared at the ground. “You messed up real bad, Jim.”
“Yeah, I know. God I messed up.” He looked at Norris for a moment, mouth open as if to say something but nothing came out. Jim coughed and looked away from the guard. “Thirty three years man, I’ve been in prison for five and on the row for two and you know what, Norris?”
“I’m pretty sure you’re my only friend, man.”
The silence stretched further.
“What are you thinking about?”
“Oh, just what it will be like. How it’s gonna feel, what’s gonna happen. They had me meet with a chaplain last night. He tried to tell me how God could forgive my sins and I could go to heaven after all.”
“Did you pray with him?”
“I told him to stuff it. Words of hope for the afterlife kinda ring hollow in the ears of a dead man.”
“You’re not dead Jim, don’t say that.”
“I was dead when my appeal failed last month. I’ve been a dead man for seven years, cut my own throat when I pulled my gun on that cop. Should’ve just blown my own head off and been done with it.”
“Its done Jim, you shouldn’t worry about it anymore.” Jim didn’t answer. “And anyway, I never would’ve gotten to meet you Jim.” They both stared at that red light; Jim’s chains were still. The light turned green.
“Looks like they’re ready for you Jim.”
“But the question is: am I ready for them?”
Norris turned to look at Jim’s eyes, impassively staring at the green light. “Are you?”
Jim stared for another moment then looked down, “I guess I am. Let’s do this.”
Guard Norris began removing Jim’s chains as he had done for six men before, there was always a sort of reverence that stemmed from this simple action, a sense of finality. This time it seemed over far too quickly. He unlocked the last catch and pulled the belt and chains free.
“Well would ya look at that.” Jim held his hands up and looked at them. “Looks like I die a free man after all.”
“Looks like it, Jim.” Norris opened the door and Jim fixed his gaze on the table beyond. It had a padded top and leather straps for the arms, legs and chest. An IV stand was next to it, trailing tubes to a computer station on the wall.
With eyes still on the table, Jim spoke. “I told you I had a son right?”
“Yeah Jim, you mentioned that.”
“He’s gonna be eight in a month.”
“Why that’s real good, Jim. You should be proud.”
“I wonder what kind of man he’ll be.” Jim stepped into the room and two men in medical scrubs escorted him to the table. He laid on his back as the restraints were tightened across his arms and chest. One of the room attendants moved to close the door but Jim’s panicked yell stopped him.
“Wait! WAIT!” He was struggling against the leather straps, trying to sit up. The attendants were attempting to hold him down. “Please, I get a last request right?”
Norris walked into the room, “Hold on guys, let the man speak.” The attendants stepped back as Norris stood next to the table. “What is it, Jim?”
“I need to… I need to tell you. The cop I killed, his name was Raymond Norris.” Norris’ hands gripped the table’s edge tightly. He didn’t speak.
“He was your daddy wasn’t he?”
It took Norris a moment to respond. When he did, his voice cracked. “He was, Jim.” Tears welled in the inmate’s eyes. Norris felt some in his own.
“Norris, you…. How could you do all this for me…. How could you be my friend? How could you forgive me?”
Norris let out a long sigh and a tear streaked across his cheek. “Because I am, because I did…. Because that’s what he taught me to do.”
“Hey Norris,” Jim’s hand strained against the restraints, Norris shook it. “Thank you man. For everything. Just thanks.”
“You’re welcome, Jim. It was a pleasure, my friend.”
Norris walked out into the hallway as the door shut. He looked at the green light next to it then crumpled to the ground, sobbing.