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, and no one is sure how he gets them that way. He looks like the type of guy who’d sell you a mortgage if his life had turned out different. It’s kind of terrifying. When I see him today, I tell him to follow me and we walk back all the way down the corridor of Death Row to the wing’s only exit. I shackle him once we’re outside and lead him down the hallway and a few officers buzz us out and we walk all the way through the Medium until we’re outside where the guys from the Minimum are pulling weeds and mowing grass near the sidewalks. From there I help him down the hill until we come to an outbuilding where we store all the tractors. “Here it is,” I say to him. “This is where those two were hung.  Hanged.  Hung?  Whatever, this where it happened.”

“Here?” he says.  “Right here?”

“Well I don’t know about right here, but hereabouts anyway.” We’re standing near the spot where the state executed Perry Smith and Dick Hickock all those years ago. “You think Truman Capote stood here?”

“Hereabouts,” I say. I hand him a cigarette. He puts it between his lips, and I light it for him. I tell him he’s lucky I was able to sneak these smokes in here; I tell him the guard who almost took them from me is sleeping with an inmate and I’m one of the lucky few who knows about it. Warren says, “Man, why would she bang one of these dirtbags?” I ask him if he’s just jealous and he says of course. He asks if I can set him up with her and I tell him one last cigarette is the best I can do. Then I tell him come on, let’s get going, that the only reason I was able to bring him down here for a minute is because the big boss is in Topeka today and I had to bribe a couple of the tower guards with NASCAR tickets. He laughs probably because he thinks I’m joking.

One of the first things I asked Manny over the phone was if I was dreaming. “Is this real?  Am I really talking to you?”

He said, “I don’t know if it’s real, Dad, but I’m definitely talking to you.” I told him that was pretty far out. He said, “Imagine being dead.”

“I miss you so much,” I said. “I think about you every day.  Every second of every day.”

He said, “I know.” I asked him how he knew. He said, “I don’t know how to explain it, but I can just feel it.” We were quiet as I tried to take this in, tried to understand it. Then he said, “So make sure you don’t die.  Because then I don’t think I’d get to feel anything at all anymore.”  I said I’d do my best.

            A few months after Manny died, I called his widow and asked her for some of the life insurance money the government paid out to her. They had gotten married during the two weeks between Manny’s return from Basic and his post at Camp Lejeune. They hadn’t even been high school sweethearts. And we all knew what type of family she came from. I told her it wasn’t fair that she got to keep all that money. I said, “He’d still be here if your dad hadn’t talked him into going down to talk to that recruiter!” I waited for her to say something back, but she didn’t. To this day I’m still not sure if she even stayed on the line to hear the next thing I said, which was, “You barely knew him. I knew him for twenty years.” And then I called her an asshole. And I called her dad a cunt. I got my words mixed up. She’s been re-married now for a long time, too.

Their wedding reception was at an abandoned Wal-Mart that some wealthy family in town had turned into a banquet hall. The remnants of his high school rock band played the same five Allman Brothers songs as we ate catered ham sandwiches and talked about his training. He said, “It wasn’t what I thought it would be.” He’d say these words to me again a year later when he called to tell me he’d volunteered to go overseas. As I was screaming at him about it, he’d tell me the whole thing wasn’t what he thought it would be, that he hadn’t signed up for the Marine Corps to mow a Sergeant Major’s lawn and pull weeds from the Camp’s flower beds. He said he’d signed up to go kick some fucking ass. “Well what did you think Basic would be like?” I asked as I picked a piece of meat out of my teeth. “Different how?”

He shrugged. He bit into his sandwich and said, “Like, you just take a shit right there in front of everyone. The toilets are just right there. No stalls or anything. And when you shower, they seriously only give you like thirty seconds.” I laughed at this. “I’m not joking, Pop, they stand there and count down, screaming in your ear the whole time and everything. Stop laughing,” he said, and then he was laughing, too. Later, in one of his e-mails from overseas, he’d tell me about how they had to shit into buckets of diesel fuel so they could burn it once it got full enough. He said things can always get worse.

            Warren is reading from the Bible on the day before his execution. He also has the Quran and a small Bhagavad-Gita paperback stacked beside him. I pat him on the shoulder and ask him if he’s hedging his bet. “I think you’re supposed to pick one,” I say.

He looks up at me and says, “Thanks for being my friend over the years.”

I sit down across from him and say, “I’m not your friend, Warren. I just try to treat you decent.”

He nods and looks back down at his book. “I ever tell you what my dad did to me? When I was five?” he says.

“You have, Warren.”

“Oh, right. So, I’ll see him in Hell if none of this works,” he says, pressing his fist into the cover of the Bible as if it’s a tiny door. “Wonder if I can kill him again down there.”

“Probably not,” I say.

“Yeah. Probably not.”

I start to stand and leave him alone with the scripture, but then I can’t move. All I can do is speak. I say, “I know what happens after you die, Warren.”

“Me too,” he says. “Supposedly anyway.” He holds up his book.

“No, I mean, I really know what really happens.”

He says, “Yeah, it’s all streets of gold or something. Sounds horrible. Sounds fucking depressing.”

“No, listen,” I say, and I look around and lean close to him and say, “promise not to tell anyone?”

“Sure?” he says, grinning.

“I’m serious.”

“They’re killing me tomorrow, man.”

“Warren, I talked to my son. He called me.”

“I didn’t know you have another son.”

“I don’t. I talked to Manny. He called my cellphone. I talked to him almost all night a few nights ago.”

Warren leans back in his chair and looks at me like he can see my heart beating inside my chest. He presses his teeth together as though he’s trying to turn them into powder. I wonder then if this was the look on his face right before he committed the crimes that got him here. Then he leans forward and says, “You okay?” I say I’m not sure.

            The whole family was over the day we found out Manny had been killed. I had just gotten the burgers off the grill. I carried the platter of meat inside and poured myself another glass of tea. “Has he called yet?” I said.

“You think I’d let you stay out there if I had him on the phone?” my wife said. She stood at the sink, washing a head of lettuce. She smiled at me. This might have been the last time she’d ever smile at me.

“I’m just nervous,” I said. We were all going to sing Manny happy birthday when he called. His actual birthday wasn’t for another three days but wasn’t going to be able to call us for another two weeks, so we all thought it’d be a nice surprise to hear from the entire family.  Thought it might lift his spirits a little. I scooped three or four tablespoons of sugar into my tea and then my wife said she was proud of me.

“For what?” I said.

“Just…days like these, with the family over, you being around your dad and your brothers,” — she shook her head — “you used to get so hammered with them.  I know it can’t be easy.” I said that my brothers probably needed to face the fact that maybe they had a drinking problem, too. I grabbed the raw steaks and went back outside to the grill. These steaks were for me and Dad. “Haven’t had a peaceful meal with him in so long,” I’d said when I brought them into the house from the store. I went out and put them on the grill and then stood on the patio and looked out at all the family around my house. I stood there and tried to think all the way back to the day Manny was born, how he’d been so small that his skin sagged off of his arms like a sweater that was two sizes too big. I was still thinking of that day as I held a can from the cooler up to my face, as I walked back to the grill to turn the meat, as a strange car pulled up against the curb out front, parked all crooked like the driver was going to break into the vehicles and then make a quick getaway. It was a gray Ford Taurus with a broken front headlight that sagged down like an eyeball starting to come out of the socket. A man in uniform limped through my lawn and up to my front door. The doorbell rang. Then my wife screamed. I ran inside. Later she would tell me that she knew what he was going to say, standing there in front of her with perfect posture like that, so she’d screamed to keep him from talking. He was holding her up when I got in there, the man from the Marine recruiting office near the Long John Silver’s in town.  The man who had signed Manny up. The man who had promised him a signing bonus and free college and a marksmanship badge. My wife was vomiting by the time I got my own hands on her. She screamed that he was dead. Then I started hitting the Marine with my spatula, swung it like a hatchet, chopped at him until he backed through the door and out into the yard.

            The night he called I asked Manny what it felt like, if he remembered it, the actual act of dying. He said he remembered everything. He was in an armored Hum-V, he said, beneath the turret. His job was to feed ammo up to the gunner, he said. They were driving along behind an MWRAP, clearing a supply road of IED’s, when they stopped to disarm one. The rockets came almost as soon as they stopped, he said. Vehicles ahead of him and behind him got hit by rockets. Manny said seeing that felt like winning the lottery. He said he couldn’t remember how many bullets hit the armor by the time he realized they were shooting at him. “And I don’t mean that they were shooting at our Humvee in general. I mean I realized they were shooting right at me, Pop.” He said the ammo boxes had flown out of the window from the explosions and the gunner was firing tracers and screaming for more bullets. Manny said he got out and gathered the boxes close and tossed them back up inside and as he turned to climb back in he was killed. I asked him to tell me more. “Tell me all of it,” I whispered. He said a rocket came in and hit the front wheel just two feet from where he crouched. “The last thing I heard was a rattle. It sounded like one of those Diamondbacks we’d sometimes see when we were out hunting, Dad. That same exact sound. I actually had a split-second to look for it.” I asked him if he felt anything. He said he felt everything.

“A second later he was part of the universe,” I told Warren.

“Part of the universe?”

“Yeah.”

“So you become part of the universe when you die?”

“Yeah, but you don’t really die.”

“So, then you stay alive?  Like the Bee Gee’s?”

“You’re gonna make a fucking joke out of what I’m telling you, Warren?”

“I’m just scared,” he said. “So…part of the universe?”

“That’s what Manny said. He said it’s hard to describe. He said you’ll see.”

Warren leaned forward and put his hand on my forearm and whispered this next thing as if he were whispering it to his oldest friend. Maybe he was. He said, “I think you might have a brain tumor.” I told him I hoped so. Warren said, “Will you be there tomorrow? Will you be there to hear my last words?” I told him I would. “I don’t know what I’m going to say. Been thinking real hard, trying to come up with something halfway good.”

            I stand in the gallery at 11:45 p.m. They’re going to execute Warren at 12:01 a.m. “Why do you think they do it at a minute after midnight like that?” Warren had said to me, after I told him I’d be there to hear out his last words. “It’s like they’re making a point of it being the first thing anyone is going to do that day. Like killing you is the most important thing for everyone.”

“It’s kind of a final fuck you to you,” I said.

After they strap him down and tap his vein the doctors give him a chance to speak his last words out into the room. They say it will be recorded for posterity. He laughs at that. When one of the doctors bends down and whispers in his ear that he should go ahead and speak one last time, Warren says, “Uh, okay.” Then he pauses. He looks at the doctors, who are looking away, and says, “I still can’t think of anything.” Then they move forward and put the syringes into the IV. I leave before they press on the first of three plungers.

A few hours later I go to clear out Warren’s cell. All the food from his last meal is still scattered on porcelain plates across his desk in there. He’d ordered chicken fried steak and a hamburger and mashed potatoes and a slice of lasagna and scrambled eggs and chocolate cake and a Coca-Cola but all we have around here is Pepsi products. He didn’t touch any of it. Not even a bite. Before I leave for the day, I rinse out the Tupperware I’d brought my own lunch in and go back into his cell and scoop the potatoes and lasagna and the hamburger patty into it. I take it home with me so that I don’t have to eat microwave dinners for a few days.

As the Marine recruiter made the left onto the long stretch of Hollingsworth road, Dad sat by himself in a lawn chair smoking his Marlboros. Even he was smiling as he watched Manny’s cousins throw a baseball back and forth, each sharing my son’s old leather from when he was their age. I had hugged Dad moments before that. It had been the first time in years and he hadn’t hugged me back, and I had joked with my wife that I would need to talk to our therapist about that, and she laughed at this, and then she hugged me and said she’d always hug me back. I bent over the cooler before I went back over to the grill and I held up a can of beer that I was going to save back for Manny so he could have a drink from his 21st birthday party once he got back.  Smoke rose up from the coals in sheets like ghosts escaping the burial grounds. Manny’s bird dog sniffed at everyone’s heel as they walked by. Everyone started migrating to the patio to eat and wait for Manny to call. Hip hop music leaked out of the old boombox I used for work. Dad turned and asked me to turn it down so he could hear if the phone rang. I told him I would as soon as I checked on our steaks. I looked inside at my house. It was so full. Everyone was dressed so nice. It was a Sunday.

Mike Wilson has had work appear in The Adirondack Review, The Allegheny Review, Cleveland Review, Litro, Midwestern Gothic, Potomac Review, Roanoke Review, The Rumpus, Tweed’s, and on NPR.  He also has a story forthcoming in Barrelhouse.  He lives in Kansas City, Missouri, with his wife and five children.