Life on Death Row
Unless Governor Schwarzenegger grants clemency Tookie Williams will be executed at San Quentin on December 13th. (Those who do not know about Williams and his work should consult www.tookie.com. And for a petition on his behalf and other actions see www.savetookie.org.) One reason arguments for clemency based on rehabilitation so often fall on deaf ears is our lack of knowledge of what it is like to live on death row and what happens existentially to human beings in that situation. (I’m hopeful that I can find some way to get this essay into Governor Schwarzenegger’s hands. And any help from readers will be appreciated. The holiday season begins: wouldn’t it be wonderful if this year some of it were about peace on earth and good will toward all human beings?)
The following essay takes the form of a dramatic monologue. It is based on two meetings I had in May of 2005 with a man who’s been on death row in San Quentin for the past 15 years. The meetings (one lasting 75 minutes; the other two hours) were face to face in booths over a telephone with a plexi-glass partition between us. I was not permitted to take either pencil and paper or a tape recorder to the meetings. Indeed, had the authorities known I planned to write this work I would not have been permitted inside San Quentin. Additionally, I met with the lawyer who represented the inmate in the appeals process for 10 years, a private investigator who does field work in connection with the appeals process, and an attorney who has done extensive work documenting conditions within California’s prisons. I also read the court transcripts of the inmate’s original trial and penalty phase trial as well as a number of secondary sources on prison life. The inmate’s appeal of the death sentence is now at the Federal level. For that reason I have been advised by attorneys not to use his name and to take other steps to disguise his identity. Within the terms of that restriction what follows is a factually complete document. There are, of course, over 600 inmates currently on death row in San Quentin.
Stage Direction. The following chronology will appear on the screen center stage as lights rise. The text will run like a scroll on that screen. At end screen will rise to reveal the condemned man who is sitting behind a Plexiglas window with a phone in his hand.
1936-Both parents born. During childhood mother of inmate was physically abused by her mother who would tie her up and leave her in basement for long periods of time. Her father sexually molested her beginning at age 11.
Inmate’s father grew up in impoverished and abusive alcoholic family. At age 7 he was sodomized by a man who then shared him sexually with other men until he was 12.
1962 Inmate born. Has older brother and sister, born respectively in 1960 and 1961.
1964-Inmate’s mother makes two attempts to drown him. Brother also attempts to smother him in crib.
1965-Inmate swallows bottle of baby aspirin and goes into convulsions.
1967-Inmate prescribed Ritalin.
1969-Inmate begins suffering grand mal seizures.
1973-Inmate begins sniffing glue.
1979– Inmate first arrested. For burglary involving assault on elderly couple.
1980-Inmate and friend rape and sodomize a 13 year old girl. Inmate then takes her to his home and repeats these acts. Then gives girl a bath. Then puts bag over her head and pushes her head under water. Convicted of a number of violent sexual offences. Given indeterminate sentence at Vacaville.
Dec. 18, 1986-Paroled from Vacaville.
February 26, 1987-Following confrontation with 19 year old daughter of father’s live-in girlfriend, inmate ingests "speed" (metamphetamine) at home of friend, Carla James. Later, driving Carla’s friend Denise home, inmate pulls off road and forces her to strip. Later that night and in the following days inmate makes sporadic attempts to get his parole revoked.
March 2, 1987-Inmate met Rosalie Romans in Wild Peacock Bar in Barstow.
March 3, 1987, 9:30 a.m. Body of Rosalie Romans found near local beach.
February 14, 1987 Inmate found guilty of first degree murder with special circumstances (rape committed during murder).
May 1, 1987-Inmate given death sentence.
2005-Having exhausted State appeals, inmates appeal of death sentence is now at the Federal level.
Stage Direction: After the screen rises a spotlight hits the face of the condemned man. The moment it hits his face he begins speaking.
I fell off the edge of the world. That’s what it felt like, the moment the bars clanged shut. My life over. Nothing now but waiting, without hope, for something that’ll come someday, it doesn’t matter when, because time is nothing now but this wall in front of me and her eyes coming out of it, following me all day, closest at night when I fight to keep mine open against sleep, knowing it will come again the way it does whenever I sleep, from as long as I can remember : I see myself under water looking up at Mother’s face all twisted, her hands like claws, forcing me down, my eyes pleading, dying- then breaking the surface gasping in a shriek toward air. Only now it’s other eyes I meet in dreams, and not darting wildly about but how they got just before I felt her body stiffen and release itself. She wasn’t looking at me anymore but at it as it moved down upon her. Death. What it’s like right before the end when there’s nothing but death and consciousness arrested and forever alone looks into the brute finality of it. Everything goes into the eyes then-into the impossible No. They’re looking at me that way now: coming at me out of sleep, pursuing me down every corridor of sleep-until I wake screaming but with no sound coming out of my mouth, only the knowing, that have to begin again, trembling in the cold of night, see it all again, live it all again, my life, but like a film running backwards, faster and faster, until all the images loop into one another and only one remains– her eyes, looking at me, asking me why
Even when I was a kid, I always wanted to understand why I was so agitated all the time and why I did the things I did. Remorse too. I always felt it right away. Hell remorse was part of the agitation spasming me from one deed to another. This was different. I was calm, for the first time in my life, if you can call it that, with something cold and unmoving in the center of me where before there’d been the blind effort to outrun what was always out ahead of me-waiting. But now there was no escape, no matter how often I told her how sorry I was. She knew better, knew that when death comes nothing remains of the fitful fever we call life. Nothing but what must have rushed through her in those last few seconds, her whole life in its furious passageThe same passage I repeat every night, drawing across time what she saw in an instant.
Life on the Row was different when I first got here. After they collected the trays from breakfast they’d open the cell doors so we could come and go almost like we were free, walk down the hall to a day room where there were tables with chess boards and chairs in semi-circles so men could sit and smoke and talk. That’s how I got to know some of the older guys. I can’t remember their names or even their faces because then I looked at everything with fish-eyes that registered nothing. But what they said reverberated in some empty place inside me, about how there was nothing for a man in here but the journey and the books I should read to get started.
It’s funny, I started doing burglaries, when I was 12, but whenever I was in a house that had a Library this strange feeling would come over me looking at the books-that they were what I really wanted to steal, all of themIf there were just some quiet place where I could go and be alone and read I’d stop then, though my ears kept listening, run my fingers slowly across some of the titles, whispering them and the author’s names, take one down and turn a page or two, getting that empty feeling in the pit of my stomach and something dreamy coming over me like Momma when she’d be cooking popcorn and we’d find her over in a corner or in the bedroom staring at the wall with the smell of burnt popcorn everywhere
That’s how I got caught. I must have been standing there I don’t know how long, reading page after page. It was like I was reading something that had been written only for me. Turning each page was like turning back layers of myself. Reading about how when it was children who were made to suffer cruelty, to see God’s purpose in that offended everything decent in us. And how there’s a hell in the heart of every man– and that’s where crime beginsI couldn’t stop, not even to turn back and get the Title or the Author’s name, and that’s how I lost itThough I’ve been searching for it ever since, in every book I’ve read, hoping to find it again, knowing that if I could find that book and read those pages again it’d be for me something like what you call peace.
He was on me before I heard a thing, like a bear, forcing me into a corner, clawing at my pants. That must be how he got my wallet and ID. I brought the book down on his head, once, twice, felt his arms go limp and sprung free. There was just her then, a red faced old woman cackling and hopping in front of me like it was her turn and she was going to take a stab at tackling me too. I moved her to the side. Almost gentle. But she went down right away, crumbled in upon herself, like she was all straw inside. I ran– knowing the fucking cops would be waiting for me when I got home.
A book has to pass a pretty stiff test to make it in here. The ones that do is where you can see the writing comes out of an urgency, where a life is at stake and every page a fight with something that can destroy you. Like in Melville and Native Son, Shakespeare in the tragedies, and Sophocles too, Beckett, Mailer sometimes, Freud and Sartre. Almost anything in Philosophy because there’s something about it that’s different like Socrates said, it’s about learning to die and the only thing worthwhile then is thought that is clean and hard.
Soon I was reading all the time-the way I’d always wanted to-all day, one book after another, each book leading into another, forming an iron chain in pursuit of a single goal. Christ, sometimes whole days went by and I never left the cell, filling the yellow pads with notes, questions, quotes I had to write down to memorize later so I could make them a permanent part of the thing I was trying to create in myself. I was so caught up in it that soon I didn’t have to work to screen out the noise-that din of despair that’s the one constant here. I was living in the hush of a silence that drowned out everything else. I lived that way for 6 years, 6 timeless years, reading, questioning, teaching myself how to think, with everything driven by the one necessity.
Because I had it all now, all the pieces that made up my life, but strewn about the way chess-men lay on a board after the game is over, or pieces of a giant jig-saw puzzle But if I could fit it together I’d see myself for the first time in a mirror and not how my life had been, one long spasm trying to outrun something I never forgot. Not memory the way it is for you, but something deeper, something I couldn’t forget because I felt it moving in me all the time, at school, in church, whenever things got quiet and I could hear myself breathingThere’d be this pop, right in the pit of the stomach and I’d feel all the air go out of me. As if life is breath like Homer says, and mine had gone leaving nothing but the struggle to hide the panic building inside meBecause I could see it now — flashing in front of me-a blanket pressed down over my face, my mother’s hands holding me down under the water, my eyes looking up at her, pleading, the whole thing whirling around inside me–until there was nothing but rage, blind rage, to explode out of myself– as if bringing my fist down upon the world was the only way I could breathe.
That’s what they tried to give me. A way to breathe. Mother, Father, Regina-I loved them so, the way they came forth to plead for my life at the trial. Only Kevin wouldn’t. They let themselves be known-utterly. All the family secrets. Like they were offering their lives to me so that I could try to piece it all together hereOnly like the way it is in a dream-a dream in which you walk through yourself becoming the thing you behold. Mother weeping all day, every day tied up down in that basement, the rats scurrying across her toes; my father waiting in that shack, trembling, the long processional of men like it was all one day, a summer afternoon, just a little boy but holding his jaw out stiff the way it always got just before he’d start hitting my mother; Regina holding her jaw the same way, refusing to cry, telling the Court what father forced her to do– what my mother’s father did to her– what I did to that poor little girl, fucking her that way then forcing her head down into the bathtub.
I could see us now, the family, like branches of a poison tree, a tree that could only grow downward, clawing its way into the earth, latching onto whatever it could take hold of to root itself deeper, water itself with our tears, reach out and claw like Mother’s fingernails, twine round itself like tendrils choking off anything that could grow upward and break free, dragging everything back down into the one knot at the center. Only now when I woke sobbing it was my mother I heard crying, not me; my father that time I heard him in the kitchen when he thought no one was home, Sis huddling in the corner of the closet when we hid from Momma, whimpering like that but saying "no, no don’t you touch me" her face like granite locked in its impenetrable stare.
I’d lay there every night feeling the images bleed into and out of one another but distinct now too until it got to where I could grind the projector to a halt, snip off one image and hold it still in front of me-though something in me kept racing like kids in a movie house banging their feet and hooting "start the show, start the show." One image. Then another. Individual but also linked like circles cutting into one another. This is that I said. Came from that. Led to that. I am my father and my mother, what happened to them is who I am, what I did. My face under the water is my mother sobbing all day tied up in that basement, the hot wheel tracks lashing our backs are the ropes binding her. My father with Regina in the camper, is me, my voice guttural like his muttering curses in that poor little girl’s ear-"whore, bitch, cunt"– because she looked so weak and submissive whimpering when I slipped the bag over her head so I wouldn’t see her face-their faces, mine, all jammed together, rushing up at me out of the bag when it ripped-a single face howling as it broke the water with me hugging her and sobbing "o my god my god forgive me please what have I done?"
Only it was too late-too late already the day I got paroled I could feel it starting to unravel driving home when Mom told me she’d lied, Kevin was still living there, with his wife and daughters, drunk every night bullying everyone and beating on them just like my Dad did. I could see it already, my knuckles whitening over the steering wheel, feel the car spinning out of control on the gravel, my fist crashing into her jaw before it stopped whirling: "take off your clothes,bitch" It had already happened I just didn’t know it yet, running around in circles for two weeks like a chicken with its fucking head cut off, hopping back and forth from Mom’s to Dad’s, where he was living with Mildred and her daughters, Jenny and good old Vicki. I was acting an absurd role in a comedy of my own invention: "Trying to make a Family"– and feeling it slipping away all the time, knowing Vicki’d be the one to betray me. Even after I brought her a new present every day when she was in the hospital–a stuffed monkey with cymbals that clang together when you wind him up, a book of poems, a flower pot with a single sunflower But no I told myself, the first time, it must be a mistake, she wouldn’t do it, lock me out of my father’s house after telling me the door would be open; pretended it was a mistake the second time, though I could see it wasn’t from that taunting look she gave me when they got back late and found me waiting on the front steps. I felt it beginning then, rage breaking loose in me, in my fist banging on the door, the third time, when I heard them inside laughing at me. "Go ahead," she said, opening the door "do something why don’t you, get yourself put back in there where you belong." I followed her out to the kitchen bitch, hearing the voice like his coming out of me "Lie to me will ya, slut, huhhh, you’re all a bunch of lying fucking whores," saw the disrespect in her eyes as she brushed by me to the bedroom. Another locked door. I’ll show you cunt my fist crashing through it like it was plywood, her face like mothers now when she’d chase us around the house with the spike end of her shoes "You’re history buster. The cops. I called them. They’ll be here any minute." Only she couldn’t stop taunting me even then, sitting there in the driveway, revving the engine to make it sound like it was laughing at me, blowing smoke rings at me through the window while I kept kicking, kicking, kicking at the door banging my fist down on the hood, cursing and crying. Then I ran-
But it was too late. I could feel it spinning out of control all night at Carla’s the drugs only made it run faster. Spinning faster the moment Denise slid into the truck next to me, spinning on the gravel when I turned off the road toward a field, spinning like a whirlpool, sucking everything down into the voice screaming "take your clothes off, bitch"—-into the voice weeping "O my god no please forgive me what did I do?" But it was still spinning, even after I took her home and told her mother everything" Call the police," I cried. Called them myself the next morning, Begged her " Sis,please, get Branch. Tell him to revoke my parole. Have them pick me up soon please" Because now I couldn’t stop it, driving around town all day in circles waiting for them to arrest me, then out into the desert, late into the night, feeling the headlights of the oncoming cars like spikes shooting into my eyes, driving out and away, searching for some place quiet under a tree or hidden in a field high with weeds so I could sleep.
Only it never slept I’d feel it the moment my eyes snapped open. It was already racing as if sleep had only increased its energy and sapped mine. Like I was still spinning on the gravel, going round and round faster and faster sinking deeper and deeper, trying to keep my head from going under, driving each day a wider circle out into the desert, feeling the heat of it coming down on me, rising up from the pavement toward me-and rage hot all over me, trying to outrun the rage but knowing it would bring me back, each circle wider and narrower, all leading to a single point, a point of infinite density, my heart, like the inside of a black hole: and in it another little town, a truck stop, a bar, staring hard at all of them now , seeing Vicki in everyone one of them, telling myself this’ll be the one, knowing it was going to happen and fighting against it, against that haughty smile she gave me when we were done playing darts. "Wait for me outside," she whispered.
It was in a vial she carried in a chain around her neck and it was good, the kind of speed that takes you out in one great rush clear to the edge of the world where you can see the stars dancing it’ll be all right, I said, maybe we can take a blanket lie out under the night sky and talk there’s no rush take it slow and easy But it all spilled out of me the moment I entered herand there it was building again in me, right away, the need to do it again "Whoah Cowboy," she laughed, "Take it slow this time okay?"– and I felt it all rush back on me the way speed gets when everything rushes away but the rage, rage raging in me, in my fists hitting at her, my hands tightening around her throat forcing her down–, so I get to see it in her face for a change– fear, panic, terror–how do you like it mother?– the full weight of my body over her pressing down on her wind-pipe, cursing and crying (he emits a terrifying sound) — only it was too late: there was nothing but her eyes staring at me with that look that came into them right before the end, staring at me like that forever.
I had it all now all right, my life, the whole picture, I held it in the palm of my hand, complete in its necessity, random in its cruelty, meaningless in its horror. And I could feel it rush right through me like a thunderbolt, my own hand dashing the cyanide pellet to the ground, my lungs gulping the poisoned air, sucking on death, feeling my whole life rush headlong through me to its pointless and inevitable end.
I’d put it all together, sitting alone in my cell, and what I knew drove me back out into the hall again, only not like before but now like a dead man walking, shuffling my feet along the floor, the same ten steps one way and then back, eyes fixed on the floor, the arms hanging limp, the shoulders stooped like an old man’s and what must have been on my face the look of a corpse because everyone stayed clear of me. Everyone except Reverend John. He was from one of Colson’s prison ministries and would walk freely among us every day, taking men aside, one by one, whispering to them, opening the book and pointing at it with his insistent finger.
And I guess he knew right away I was one of the ones who’d read the parts in red, over and over, long into the night when the only light left was from the moon, and feel the tidal pull of a compassion so inconceivable that soon I couldn’t wait to tell him "yes yes I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior," weeping and saying it over and over while he held me in the thick embrace of his bear-like arms. And I tried, tried to hold onto Jesus later when I felt him slipping away, no matter how hard I tried to feel his love, tried to hold onto the Reverend too even after I saw that it was all about power for him. He wasn’t interested in the questions I was asking now, only in what came later when the beckoning of his sad eyes told me it was time to confess again and sob how thankful I was to him and Jesus for forgiving me, again and again. No, goddammit! I couldn’t forgive myself and didn’t want to. I’d done the most terrible thing a human being can do. ‘Forgive yourself," he said ‘even as your heavenly Father forgives you.’ Only that doesn’t bring back a life. The dead are the only ones who have a right to forgive-and they can’t. Their eyes say something else. That death is a horror in which there’s no comfort or forgiveness. Only nothingness, pitiless and final–and as your life slips from you the last thing you see is that nothingness, triumphing over every hope and illusion. Besides, the afterlife and the great banquet of forgiveness. It undoes everything. As if all the evil and suffering we do doesn’t matter finally. Life’s a shell game to amuse something vindictive in us that wants to call itself God.
It got so I couldn’t stand to see him coming down the hall with that sad look in his eyes. I didn’t want his fucking pity. I wanted Judgment, Judgment pure like hammer strokes
And I knew there was only one way to get it. Back into the cell, into the books, the one’s that had been the hardest to crack. Books with a finality that cut away everything but what I could use to forge a hammer I could bring down upon my life the way you crack a walnut so that all the pieces shatter and nothing is left but what’s at the center. I was reading again, all day, but now like I wanted to finish something not start it and so needed only the few books, the ones I’d struggled against that had defeated me the first time. Like Spinoza. Not because he was difficult but because he’s pure. For weeks I read the opening sentences, over and over, paralyzed by their clarity. And then step by step the great movement of thought that follows. But I had to understand each sentence-understand it from the inside-before I could read the next one. I’d hold a sentence in front of me, days at a time, until I grasped the inevitability of it. One sentence after another, for I don’t know how many months, with all existence purged away except the iron march of thought toward total clarity. Pure concepts in a pure order-from bondage to freedom-and then as I raced to the breathless close of it, I felt it, what everyone says, how he becomes a wind, a great wind blowing through your whole life, scattering the dross like leaves in autumn, leaving nothing but the truth apprehended in its perfect symmetry, each individual piece known in its necessary connection to every other, what happened to my mother and my father, the things I did, each piece infinite in depth and complexity yet bound to every other in an intelligibility total, unchanging-and thus beyond rage. Forever beyond rage.
And so I waited in the purity of that knowledge for what I sought to happen. And nothing did. I saw my life, that’s all, like dirty bathwater whirling down a drain, taking everything with it into that terrible sucking sound it makes at the end.
It’d stay this way forever. I’d know it all-in perfect comprehension-and nothing would change. Ever. I looked up one day and I’d been on the Row for 9 years. It would have stayed like that, another decade or more, mere time, if it hadn’t been for the black man.
I could feel him staring at me through the back of my head long before I saw his eyes black with rage burning into me, saying "This is how it’ll come down, any day now motherfucker. And you won’t see meThere’ll be just the shiv in the spine –and then I’m the last thing you’ll see, my eyes, watching you die."
It was like Shakespeare says somewhere, I was distilled into a jelly with the act of fear. It was in my legs every time I tried to stand and walk, in my hands shaking like a junkie in need of an angry fix. In me and outside me, lurking in the cell, even after it was locked "I know how he gets in! He doesn’t need the guards to open the doors. It’s a key, he’s got it hidden in that gold tooth that gleams at me when he smiles. Tonight, that’s when he’ll come, after I can’t help it anymore and fall into sleep. I’ll wake, my throat already slit, the blood starting to gurgle, his great hands around my ears almost like he’s going to kiss me– and his eyes like huge suns on fire with hate." It got to where all I could do was lay in my cell, balled up in a fetal position, trembling and crying like a baby. So I did it-the one thing you can never do here. I dropped a kite. On myself. I’m sorry, a kite, that’s what we call it when you slip a note to a guard ratting on somebody. "Save me. He’s everywhere now, his dreadlocks like snakes with eyes at the end-eyes like fangs."
They took me to the white room. That’s when it really got bad. When I was safe. After they strapped me down on a bed like I asked them to-and I was free, free to rave. I didn’t need him anymore. It was all back inside me, but torn loose from all the ways I’d tried to contain it. I could feel it, something ravenous, scooping out chunks of my heart, devouring them: like that passage in the Bhagavad Gita when all mankind rushes into Krishna’s mouth to be chewed to pieces, the crushed heads stuck between his teeth, all creation, moths to the flame, rushing headlong to the one sea, burning, burning in Krishna’s flaming jaws. "No" I screamed when they told me they were going to medicate me. "No motherfuckers you can’t, not without my permission. I know my rights, even here." Somehow in my raving I knew that this is what had to happen. What I had to go into wherever it took me. The only thing I had to hold onto-my madness. The only thing left that was mine. Mine–even when they put me down in the hole.
That’s where it happened, what I’d always sought, deservedEverything drifted away-even the images. I was left with only the one thing. Emotion. That’s what we are. All we are. Something happens and an emotion is formed. Later something triggers it and it returns-in all its fury. Then it’s like what Spinoza said-an emotion can only be replaced by another emotion and the strongest always wins. Hate, fear, love, rage-each the pure product of pure and brutal experiences-warring with each other. Emotion-the thing that tears us apart. And so we try to blow it out into the world. Inflict it on someone else to get some relief. But it always returns to its source. Life nothing but the process of being blown with restless violence from one emotion to another. But always in the end rage, only rage
Let it come, I said, feeling the sweat of it pouring over me rocking myself back and forth in it making my body a cradle for it. For rage so pure it’d consume me, rage raging in me until it burst into remorse– remorse becoming love– a terrible love, ripping me apartThen again nothing but the panic of feeling myself-what you’d call my soul-dying within. Then reborn, reborn in rage. I felt it claw at me: not I it, I said like that play of Beckett’s, only I knew it was I and II felt myself vanish into ituntil there was nothing but one emotion after another searing my flesh. Time went away and space. The room went away. I was utterly alone, with nothing left between me and what I was.
Most of the time it felt like I’d never come back. That rage would claim me so complete and entire that I’d run and dash my brains out against the padded wall. Or that I’d dissolve in a love that was nothing but pity, pity for a loss so deep that one morning they’d find me gone in a weeping that could never end. Or that the panic would seize me"yes that’s how it’ll end crying out against myself for the Meds, begging for them, pleading with them please please I’ll do anything just take the pain away." Or fear, the worst fear, that I’d become my deed-but without remorse-my deed and nothing but a monster raving kill kill kill, living only for horror, wanting it, more of it, unable to get enough of it, hurt and hatred and revenge.
I felt each emotion blow down white hot all over me. Burning itself up in me. Renewing itself through me. And in the brief interim, when the whole thing would pause and turn on itself like a ferris wheel about to run backwards-Dread– the cold sweat of dread all over me, knowing this might never end yet knowing I had to sustain it because otherwise I was truly lost. Do it to yourself, I cried. Be it, rage, hate, terror, despair. Assault yourself with yourself. Make each emotion a spike driven through the brain straight into the heart. That’s the only way, I cried, and in that cry I became a young girl in Nepal sold into prostitution, raped and beaten by two men; a woman in New York bleeding to death in an alley 10 feet from home, the neighbors gawking through closed windows; then little girls, dozens of them, sexually abused children crying out of me for it to "stop." Stop!" And that’s when it began, what had to happen, though I had no way to know it then, all the emotions bleeding into one another, out of their clash refining themselves into something else that I no longer felt would crush or swallow me but out of which something new might come to be.
I lay there like a corpse feeling the whole process moving across me the way a rat down here sometimes crawls across your chest in the night, slow and tentative, almost delicate, like it was your companion and didn’t want to wake you. Don’t move, I said. Hold yourself still in the still of this. Wait. Wait. And then I felt it, my whole life, coming back to me, all the images, every event, but like there was finally room in me for them. Like I’d created a womb in myself and something was being born there. All I’d felt, done, suffered, all the violence of my passage through life, was being transmuted into something else. Like I was giving birth to myself. Out of myself. Feeling in myself something I’d never felt before. Not pity or remorse but grief, a grieving for my life and out of that grieving a new way of being beginning in me. Only I couldn’t reach out and grab it like the brass ring, but had to wait, wait for it to open in me. I wept then, but in a way I never had before. There was no desperation in it. The tears were warm and slow-streaming down my cheeks-and full of what I can only call gladness. But grief too, real grief. A grief for her deeper than any I’d felt before when the panic to deny who I was got all mixed up in it. No, this was real grief. Grief for someone I never knew-someone who never had a chance like mine to know herself. For a life that never was. Unforgivable-to take that from someone. And so for the first time I could really say it to her: " I’m sorry, sorry for your lossfor taking from you the chance to discover who you were." (breaks down and weeps.)
And that’s when I felt it, love spreading out from me like spokes of some great wheel, blood red spokes running across a wheel as big as the sun, turning, turning in love for all of them, for my mother just a little girl all all alone down in that basement and my father all alone, forever alone, in that room full of men. And Sis, the beautiful one, who
Somehow knew from the start that there’s one commandment we must live by-the refusal to pass it on.
Something like what you’d call peace descended on me. Not forgiveness, but something else. A feeling–I don’t know how to put it any other way–that I was ready to resume my life. That I’d carry it all, but in a new way
I lay there feeling it moving across me like that last breeze of night that comes just before dawn when we collect ourselves silently in the beckoning of day. Because I was in time again and knew it, time like the first step toward the prospect of a distant mountain capped with snow. And I was ready to start on that journey, ready to rejoin the world of men. But I waited, waited in the hush of it for what must have been at least two more months. When I left the hole, the guards told me I’d been down there over three years.
Everything since has been one day, man. And I want to live it to the full. In the Now. Like I told you before, I got way beyond the religious stuff. I don’t need what it promises. But I believe with all my breath, that there’s a spiritual dimension and that it defines us. You can scoff at that if you want to, but without it we’re all dead long before they drop the pellet.
The journey. It’s all that matters and the only way to make it is to live purely with nothing between you and who you are. For some, it takes all their time here just to get started-but that’s enough. A life begun. I was lucky, I always had remorse. I didn’t have to waste years trying to crack the hard nut of denial. Aaahh, and there’s so many ways to get lost, to turn the journey into something else. Some guys here become lawyers and get so stuck in a battle to outsmart the State that they forget their deed. That even happened to one as great as Chessman, I’m told, until he became the shadow of himself. No, I tell my lawyer, no no no no no, I don’t want to know what’s happening in my case. Appeals-the interminable process of what will come.
The innocent ones, the ones who are here unjustly, it’s all different for them. Like those souls at the beginning of Dante who weep forever but not over anything they’ve done and yet without hope of ever leaving this place. They make their journey, but I have no idea what it is. Maybe I don’t want to know because it would undo me. We pass, in silence, and like were always moving in opposite directions and have to keep moving that way because if we turned and faced one another there’d only be the questions burning in each other’s eyes. Can they forgive us? Has injustice become in them the desire to kill us? Before them will all our work crumble to dust in a guilt that can’t be expiated?
I can’t say I’m thankful for my life. That would be obscene. And yet I’m one of the fortunate men. I found a way, in this place, to do what few people can do. Rehabilitated? I don’t know what that means. After a time any man in here isn’t the same man he was when he got here. Because there are only two choices. To finish it — become the thing one was trying to be on the outside. Murder. Rape. Terror. Revenge. Or to somehow find a way to live life to the full every day, knowing it isn’t life, can’t ever be life. Life is what I took. Like what Patricia Krenwinkel said, how she wakes every day knowing she’s a taker of life and deserves to wake each day to that knowledge. That’s what I try to live too, knowing that every breath I draw comes after she, the woman I killed, Rosalie, Rosalie Romans, drew her lastThat’s how she lives in me. She is all I denied her and all she could have been-a pure possibility that must become cleaner with each year.
I’ve been trying to think of an example so you’d see how what I call the spiritual isn’t anything grand but simple. And then I remembered a day in the yard last week. They only let us out a few at a time. And there I saw one standing alone, his fingers curled like claws through the chain link fence, looking out at the Bay. He was unmaking himself. And so when it was time to go back in I worked my way along the fence, toward him, leaning out with my head to catch his eye so he’d hear me whisper to him as I passed " Hold on, brother, you can carry it. Hold on now." I don’t know who he was and I’ll probably never see him again. Christ, there’s over 600 of us on the Row now. But maybe letting him know I knew what he was going through lightened his load. And mine. It’s there, you can feel it in your chest sometimes, a love that’s got nothing to do with anything in herebut life, life the way it was meant to be lived, even by those of us who’ve lost it.
As lights dim on the man’s face until only the eyes are visible, we hear the following in voice over.
The first thing you see is also the last. His eyes, a deep blue like the sky when you’re up over the clouds or the Pacific some days when you look out at it from a promontory. Melville’s ungraspable phantom. An everlasting blue-deep and penetrating yet calm and eternal like the sea. Never for one second during our time together did he take his eyes off me. He looked at me directly and asked the same of me; and eventually I knew why. There was no time for the pause to look away and collect oneself. There was only the breathless effort, in the short time given to us, to get it all said and mine to concentrate myself within it.
On both visits, with the knock at the door behind him, talk ceases between us. Whatever sentence we’re in the middle of is abandoned. There is now only the one necessity. He brings his fist to the glass and I bring mine flush against it. We keep them there as if we could feel through impenetrable glass what is in our eyes, the clasp of brotherhood. "You’ve got a friend out here," I stammer as he rises. "And you’ve got one in here," he smiles, turning back toward me as he slips his hands behind him through the port to receive the handcuffs. I’ll be with him there, whenever he needs me. For whatever.
Bright lights, we see the man’s face again. He brings his fist forward and closes it against the glass. Lights then fade slowly until only the fist is visible. Then fade to darkness.
WALTER A. DAVIS is professor emeritus of English at Ohio State University. He is the author of Deracination: Historiocity, Hiroshima and the Tragic Imperative. He can be reached at: email@example.com.