Shoot, shovel, and shut-up. The words, carved on the arm of the chair, hide from camera-shot and mourning widow beneath flaxen straps. The warden calls six minutes. I pull on the straps and tension test the leather’s give. You’ve got to really rail on them to make sure they won’t break loose with thirty seconds done. That’s when the bodies start to flail.
The car ride this morning lasted little more than an hour, long enough to pass county lines, but not much else. This town looks like the last, and the seven before that. Church, school, swimming pool, basketball court, crack house, turnpike, prison.
Three minutes. I watch a drop of sweat glide down the tip of the warden’s nose, so crooked that Mamma would call it twice-broke. I nod and offer up a half-reassuring smile, but it all gets lost beneath the hood. The warden pulls a handkerchief from his breast pocket and mops his brow. He presses his lips together in grim acknowledgement but does a kind of clumsy quick step when it comes time to pass by me.
They pick you up at a predetermined location, outside a laundromat or a shuttered-up penny arcade. Nobody asks you your real name, but they’ll call you just about anything you ask them to. In the beginning, I spent a good while coming up with clever anagrams for dead presidents, but that was before the novelty wore off. Now, I’m just Joe Whatever-the-day-of-the-week. Today it’s Joe Tuesday.
Two minutes. The door to the viewing gallery swings open. A guard herds in a small procession. I can tell the reporters by the scuff-click of their saddle shoes, but there’s another sound that’s more distinct: a pair of women’s high heels. The hollow click reads more lover than mother. I close my eyes and draw her up. I get as far as the bend in her knee before I shake my head. The sands of charcoal that make up the better part of a limb pull away. She’s dust now, just like whoever will be strapped down in the chair once the warden calls time.
The door behind me swings open. I glance back at the chair as the prisoner clears the doorway. Three hundred and fifty pounds, give or take a biscuit, and towering two heads above my own, and I’m the tallest man in the room. The prisoner is led in by a lanky corrections officer a quarter his size. Each of his ankles is shackled independently and then joined together through a third set. Though I suspect that given the right inspiration no amount will hold. The warden taps his watch while the officer makes quick work of the straps. Another wave of sweat rolls down the warden’s crown onto his collar, dampening it to a shade of midnight blue two tones darker than the rest of the shirt. He counts down the final few seconds and then gives me the signal. I raise my hand to the lever on the wall. The prisoner’s eyes follow it, and then they settle on me.
Prisons don’t have their own executioners. We’re contract workers. Nobody in the prisons where I’ve killed has seen my face. Nobody knows my real name. It’s safer that way. I’ve often wondered though what people see when they look at me. I meet the prisoner’s gaze, and as I flip the switch, I tilt my head and try to draw up the image of myself reflected in his darting pupils. Clay, half-formed instead of a whole thing. Skin that starts as smooth porcelain but finishes in a gunny-sack patchwork. The prisoner’s body flails and jumps and tests the limits of the leather straps. Panic swells in his eyes that try and fail to meet my own, that find only empty sockets where eyes should be. I wonder, do they fear the hood, or what’s beneath it more?
—Semi-finalist in MacQ’s
Magician Ekphrastic Writing Challenge
is from Burnaby, British Columbia. A graduate of Simon Fraser University, she completed an MA degree in English Literature and Print Culture. Madeleine has recently gone back to school to become a high school English teacher.