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 m