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September 24 , 2018

Death Minus Hours

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The day before his execution, I saw my dad for the next to last time.

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A Death in the Small Hours

Charles Lenox is at the pinnacle of his political career and is a delighted new father. His days of regularly investigating the crimes of Victorian London now some years behind him, he plans a trip to his uncle's estate in Somerset, with the expectation of a few calm weeks to write an important speech. When he arrives in the quiet village of…

I had never seen him this thin, nor this unshaven. In fact, I can’t for the life of me ever remember him unshaven. Yet, here in his cell, with only a day to go—less than a day, now, more like twenty hours (not even that) till the blessed event, as he liked to call it—the gray stubble was probably a week old.

It had been a while. For months, now, he had refused all visitors, and not even the Warden, apparently, could overrule that. But now, Death banging on the door as it were, he had finally conceded to see me. But that’s where he drew the line. Only me. No Frannie. No mom. Absolutely no mom.

So there I was. Sitting next to him on his narrow death-row cot.

The cell’s cinderblocked walls were not exactly white. My guess is that they had been white at some point, but that too much cleaning over the condemned years had worn off much of the paint to reveal the gray of the cinder beneath. Somewhere between white and gray, like an impure white. Couldn’t put my finger on it, not that I tried very hard. But that’s what I was looking at waiting for him to say something, waiting for him to look up at me.

But he wouldn’t. Would not look up at me. Would not look me in the eye. He’d glance, though, now and then, at my knees, as if to assure himself I was still there and still prepared to listen to what he had to say. Finding me still there, he’d continue the nervous rub of his misshapen left thumb, which lacked its nail—something that had always fascinated me. Growing up I’d ask him about it. Sometimes he’d say it was a boating accident, other times he’d say nothing. Beyond that he’d never elaborate, no matter how much I pleaded.

He never had no boat.

What fascinated me the most about that thumb was the grotesque little thing that had sprouted in lieu of nail. A little keratin mountain he not so much had to cut as sculpt to make resemble its once-upon-a-time forebear.

Now rubbing it again, as if easing a long-ago pain, or some untold sin, and then another glance in my direction, higher this time, chest-high, it almost caught my eye (at least the corner of), though soon enough back to some portion of the floor by his feet.

Then he said, as if this had just occurred to him, which it may well have, but somehow I doubt it, “She had the most beautiful voice, Carla did.”

Carla was my aunt, my dad’s sister, dead these many years by his hand.

“I always said she could sing the rain away if she had a mind. She could have been a star.”

Then he fell quiet again. Did he expect me to answer? I wasn’t sure, so I didn’t. Then he said:

“They say you piss yourself, or worse.”

He was to hang. They give you a choice in this state, and he had been given it: the chair or hanging. Your pick. Done right, or so I’ve read, hanging snaps your neck and you die pretty much on the spot. Done wrong, you’re strangled at the end of a rope—or cable rather, which is what they use here, a cable with a big fat rope noose at the end of it that’s supposed to snap your neck, but if it doesn’t, if it’s not positioned correctly, instead it’ll leave you dangling, chocking, eventually dying from strangulation. We should all pray the hangman in this place knows what he’s doing.

The chair, he’d concluded, is very messy. He’d done some research. Asked some questions. Some even survive it, pissing and shitting all over themselves, he said at the time, and has to be done over. Hanging any day, he said—not quite singing its praises, but not far from it.

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