Mike Wilson

Birthday

My son called me last night. When I held the phone to my ear he said, “Dad?” before I could even say hello. I hadn’t heard his voice in almost fifteen years because that’s how long he’s been dead. “Manny?” I said. And then I could hear him smiling when he said, “Yeah, Dad, it’s me,” and I said holy shit. And then for a few moments I couldn’t talk at all.

The same thing happened to me at his funeral. I went up there and tried to speak but made the mistake of looking right at the sealed casket as I got to the podium — they sent it back like that, sealed up like a can of Campbell’s or something. They said I wouldn’t want to see what was in there. “All of him probably didn’t even make it into that casket,” my dad said when they brought it to the funeral home.

I looked out at all our family and friends after I stared at his casket. They were looking back up at me, but I could only see my father. Dad wasn’t crying but his hand shook atop the cane he always carried but never really needed. It was the same cane I took from him when Manny was five years old, after Dad smacked him across the neck with it. I snatched it from Dad and poked him in the chest with it like it was the barrel of my Browning; I told him it was one thing that he’d hit me with it when I was little, but I wasn’t going to let him do Manny that way. He laughed and told me that if I didn’t tie my son to a rod, he’d grow out instead of up.

Then I tried to speak my son’s eulogy, but all I could do was blow air out of my mouth like I’d just taken a drag off a cigarette. All I could say after that was, “Hug your babies,” and I tripped down the stairs as I went back to my seat. Everyone thought I was drunk.

At work the next morning I act like everything is normal, like I hadn’t spent all evening talking to an actual ghost. I go through the metal detectors and can’t hold in a smile as one of the other guards wands me and asks to see what’s in my hip pockets. I show her my keys and my cigarettes and lighter. “Not supposed to bring those in,” she says. “What are you so chipper about, old fart?”

I put my belt back through the loops and clip my mace near my gun holster and then slide my badge over the leather next to the buckle. “Had a good night last night,” I say.

“Ah,” she says, and winks. “Good for you. I guess old men need loving, too.”

I play along and shrug and then grab my smokes and put them in my breast pocket and she flicks her head as if to ask why I still thought I could bring those in. So I say, “You know a thing or two about that, don’t you?” People standing near us probably think we’re sleeping together. But she isn’t sleeping with me. She’s hooking up with an inmate over in the Minimum.  She’s gotten caught a few times by a few of us but so far no one has said anything to any of the bosses.

“Fine, but if you get caught you better keep my name out of your mouth.”

“I’m no snitch,” I say as I go over to the armory closet. I pick out my Glock and slide the magazine into it and holster it. Death Row guards are the only ones in this place allowed to carry weapons inside, which doesn’t make any sense, because the guys over there are the least dangerous ones in here now that they’re in here.

When my cellphone rang last night at 3:00 in the morning I thought something was wrong, even though by then I hadn’t had anyone to worry about like that for years. When I heard Manny say, “Dad?” it was the first time I’d heard his voice since the week he died. They were allowed one call a day back then and he’d alternated between calling us and his wife. He called and said that they were all real hungry because they were rationing their MREs because the Taliban had stolen their food. I asked him how the fuck did their food get stolen. He said they were in such a remote part of the country that they had to have their supplies dropped in by parachute. Manny said the enemy had gotten to their food before they had; he said crates of ammo were missing, too. And grenades. He said they were running low on food and bullets and bombs but other than that things were going good. He asked me if his mom could make some chocolate chip cookies and send them over. He said that by the time they arrived they were always broken into chunks from the trip but they were still good that way. “And see if she can send some underwear,” he said. “And socks. And sunscreen.”

At the sound of his voice last night I pressed the phone hard against my ear as I stood and walked downstairs to the kitchen. I needed light. And water. I said his name again as I went.

“Dad,” he said, “are you okay?”

I didn’t want to answer. I thought on it for a minute and said, “I’m trying to be,” which was as honest a thing as I could say. Felt like it summed up the gambling, and the private room of the strip club that I gave my tax refund to every year, and the gin I poured into my coke every night, and the time I hit his mom before she left, and how much I hate it that she’s been re-married to her new husband now for almost as long as she was married to me. Then I asked him how he was doing, and he laughed and said, “I’m dead, pop.” And I laughed too. Or I might have been crying. I couldn’t tell.

There’s going to be an execution inside the prison on Friday. It’ll be the first one the state has done in 53 years. The guy losing his life is my age and everyone around here says he deserves what’s coming to him but I wouldn’t really know because I’ve made sure not to hear rumors about any of these guys over the years and I never read up on the details of their files because I like most of the guys I guard. Life is better for all of us that way.

The man we’re putting down is named Warren Henry Wallace. He likes to be called Hank, so no one calls him that. He’s in his early sixties, wears the state issued horn rimmed glasses, is balding and what little beard hair he has on his face is all white. His face is pitted with acne scars. His teeth are perfect white rectangles, like smaller versions of the bars of soap we stock in the showers