We’ve shared a lot of lighthearted moments here in café and there will be many more. But sometimes life takes us into darker places.
The Last Chance Democracy Cafe
Episode 52: Death visits after midnight
by Steven C. Day
Memory can be a funny thing: What our minds keep and what they throw away. In the case of our earliest childhood experiences, of course, almost everything gets tossed, victimized by what experts call childhood amnesia. But out of this blanket of early darkness, most of us retain at least one small pinprick of light in the form of our earliest memory. Often it’s nothing particularly noteworthy; an everyday event seemingly picked at random, almost like the reward given to the millionth person to drive across a bridge.
Donald, one of our Tuesday night regulars at The Last Chance Democracy Café, told me once that his first memory is of the coast of Maine. He was three years old, on the only extended vacation his family would ever take.
While walking along one of the rare bits of sandy beach to be found on the rocky coast of Maine, they came across a large piece of driftwood, probably from the main trunk of the tree. It had been run aground by the incoming tide. Donald and his sister both sat on it with one leg on each side like they were riding a horse, and their father pushed it back into the water, only to have the next large wave send them crashing back onto the sand. They did this again and again, laughing and generally having the time of their lives.
It was the only entirely unadulterated happy memory Donald would ever have of his father.
* * *
Donald had called me a couple of hours earlier. He sounded shaken.
“Steve,” he began, “tonight . . . well, actually tomorrow, right after midnight. My dad . . .”
I didn’t want to force him say the words. “I know,” I broke in quickly. “I heard.”
“Yeah, well, anyway, I had Cindy and the kids go to her parents for awhile. I thought it would be easier on them that way. And I was wondering . . . would it be okay if I came to the lounge tonight? I don’t want to be a downer or turn the place into a circus, but reporters will be calling and . . . I’d rather be out of the house when it happens.”
“Of course, we’d love to see you.”
I quickly called Horace, Tom, and Winston. Donald liked them, I knew, and, maybe more importantly under the circumstances, respected them. I figured he could use the support. I called Zach, our young college friend, too. I thought he might learn something.
* * *
Bipolar disorder and psychosis weren’t terms Donald had ever heard as a child. All he knew was that there were the bad times when his father, Gill, would yell at Donald’s mother more than usual and when the beatings got really bad. Sometimes Gill would disappear for days on end. Sometimes he’d threaten to kill himself. Sometimes they didn’t know if he was dead or alive.
Then almost like someone had flipped a switch, everything would be alright again, or at least as close to alright as things ever got — until the next time.
As a child, Donald never thought of this as being out of the ordinary. It was all he knew. He assumed all families lived this way.
That didn’t mean he didn’t hate it, though.
School was always his escape. He threw himself into his studies with a vigor many of his classmates, frankly, found a little weird. But it paid off, as year after year he was a straight-A student. In middle school, when his options started to expand, he signed up for every extracurricular activity he could — clubs, class committees, debate squad — anything to keep him out of the house.
In high school he added part-time jobs to the list, along with spending every free hour reading at the library. But in the evening, when he finally ran out of excuses and had to go home, as often as not as he walked up to his front door he’d hear the sound of angry voices and sometimes the crashing of objects coming from inside.
If his teachers and principals had an idea of the hell he faced at home, they didn’t let on. He was on his own.
* * *
I had picked up Horace, Tom, Winston, and Zach in my van at around nine that evening. I didn’t expect Donald to arrive until closer to midnight.
As we all sat there fidgeting at the large round table waiting for Donald, Horace apparently decided to get to the point of the evening, asking Zach, “So what do you think about the death penalty?”
Zach seemed a little ill at ease. “I’m not sure I want to tell you.”
“Well, you don’t have to, of course, but do you mind telling me why you feel that way?”
“I don’t think you’ll like what I have to say.”
Zach nodded hesitantly. “Okay . . . the thing is I don’t have a problem with capital punishment in some cases. When somebody does something really horrible. Someone who rapes a girl and then kills her, something like that. I figure if that happened to someone in my family I’d want the bastard who did it to die. I think the families are entitled to that.”
Horace paused, clearly thinking over Zach’s comments, before saying, “I’m sure we’d all have those feelings, if something like that happened to someone in our family . . . at least at first. But do you think the fact our base instincts drive us in that direction necessarily makes it the right thing to do?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t have a problem with it. I know you don’t agree, but that’s how I feel.”
Zach was right. The rest of us who were at the table are all opposed to capital punishment. And we all have pretty much the same reasons for feeling that way: We don’t believe our justice system, operated as it is by fallible human beings, can ever be made foolproof enough to be certain innocent people will never be executed. And we’re also very concerned about the racially discriminatory way the ultimate penalty is imposed in the real world, as well as how much it seems to be reserved for the poor. But the truth is that all that is just window dressing: At the end of the day, we oppose the death penalty because we believe it to be morally wrong, end of story.
I was proud of Zach for standing up to us that way, but I’ll be honest: It did kind of bother me that he felt the way he did.
* * *
Everyone in town knew Gill was having an affair with Mary Stewart; it had been going on for years. Although Gill, with thinning dirt-brown hair, a craggy face and tobacco stained teeth and fingers, wasn’t what anyone would call handsome, finding girlfriends had never been a problem for him. Mary, the divorced mother of two daughters and a waitress at a local café, was seven years younger than he was, but looked at least as old, perhaps a product of the incessant sun tanning she had done in her youth. Morgan, her older daughter, was in the same grade as Donald; they had known each other ever since middle school, but both bore the humiliation in silence, never discussing or even mentioning their parents’ relationship.
It sometimes seemed to Donald in those days like he’d spent his entire life in the middle of a storm. But it was on the third day of the second semester of his junior year in high school that it became a perfect storm.
There was still snow on the ground, left over from a blizzard the week before. And it was cold out, the sort of cold that sucks the breath out of you. Gill had stormed out of the house the night before after picking a fight with Donald’s mother, heading out into the arctic-like conditions wearing nothing but underwear and a T-shirt. Although no one said it, everyone assumed he’d gone to Mary’s house. That was the usual pattern.
What they didn’t know was that Mary had broken up with Gill earlier that day; she told him she was tired of being used by a married man.
After leaving the house, Gill got some work clothes out of his pickup truck and then just drove around town for the rest of the night. Around 6:00 AM, he went to the café where Mary worked, but she was off. He sat drinking coffee for several hours, never saying a word. Then he went to the hardware store where he bought a large wrench and drove to Mary’s house.
Inside with Mary was her younger daughter, Stacy, age 11, home from school with strep throat. Gill grabbed the wrench, walked up and kicked the door open.
The police found blood everywhere. Gill had crushed Mary’s skull to the point where she was no longer recognizable. The medical examiner would later estimate at the trial that he had landed more than 60 blows with the wrench. A living room window had been broken at some point during the attack. Blood had flown through the opening and splattered on a neighbor’s window across the drive. The medical examiner testified that the force of the blows had been almost superhuman.
But it wasn’t over. After finally finishing with Mary, Gill climbed the stairs to the second floor and broke into Stacy’s room, finding her crouched in the closet crying, begging to be left alone. Within a minute she was dead too.
The police found Gill two hours later sitting on the floor in Stacy’s room, still holding the wrench.
* * *
Donald finally arrived at The Last Chance Democracy Cafe a little after 11:00 PM. He walked in stiffly, a look of resignation on his face. I don’t know any better way to describe Donald than to say he looks exactly like what an English professor should look like. He has a carefully groomed full beard, reddish-brown hair and brown eyes. Short and unassuming in stature, he lacks his father’s muscular frame, looking, in fact, downright bookish — a description he wouldn’t mind a bit.
I wasn’t sure what to say, whether he’d want to talk about it. So I did the one thing I was sure was appropriate: I got him a drink.
“Thanks,” he said. “This is a little awkward, I know. Sorry, maybe I shouldn’t have . . .”
“Hogwash,” said Winston. “This is no time for you to be alone and we’re happy to be here.”
“We can talk about politics or even football if you like,” offered Horace.
“Thanks, but . . . To be honest with you, I’m a little shell-shocked. It’s hard to believe this is really happening. It’s been 19 years, you know, 19 years. I was 17 when it happened, a junior in high school. Here I am 36 . . . a college professor. It feels like I’ve lived with this my whole life.”
I felt the need to say something. “Maybe this will finally let you . . .” I stopped in mid-sentence, realizing I was about to say something incredibly stupid.
“You were going to say this will let me move on, right?” Donald finished my comment. “I don’t know, maybe, eventually . . . but I can’t think about that right now.”
“I’m sorry, it was a stupid thing to say,” I blurted out.
“No. Don’t worry about it. But to be honest, it kind of surprises me . . .” Donald’s voice trailed off for a moment, then came back strong. “It surprises me how much I care. How much this still hurts. Your father can be the biggest bastard in the world, but he’s still your father. And there are always the exceptions, the happy moments . . .”
Winston, filling the gap in the conversation, spoke angrily, “It’s an outrage what they’re doing. I studied the appellate decisions in the case. There’s no way the penalty should have been upheld. Your father was sick. He was a sick, sick man. It’s a travesty.”
Donald stared at his untouched drink. “You’re right, of course,” he said softly. “But I understand how Morgan . . . she’s the surviving daughter . . . you know of the woman. I understand how she feels. Her whole family was taken from her. I don’t blame her for wanting to see dad dead. I’m sure I’d feel the same way. Hell, I don’t even blame her for hating me. She’s entitled.”
“No . . . no, she isn’t,” said Horace sternly. “She isn’t entitled to blame you. That’s a sin . . . an understandable and forgivable one, maybe, but still a sin. You were as much of a victim as she was.”
“God knows she’s suffered during these 19 years. I hope this gives her some peace. I really do. I hope at least that much good comes from this. But to be honest I doubt it will.”
Horace nodded slowly. “You’re right, I’m afraid. The human spirit just isn’t put together that way. We can’t fill the holes in our own lives by putting holes in other people’s lives.”
* * *
Donald was in his algebra class when the deputy sheriff and the vice principal appeared at his classroom’s door, looking stern and troubled.
“What’s wrong?” Donald asked fearfully as they escorted him to the vice principal’s office.
No one answered. The vice principal gestured him into the office. Then just like that they told him what had happened. Donald stumbled backwards, bumping into the glass wall at the back of the office with a thump. He looked out across the hall into the principal’s office. Morgan was standing there crying; they had obviously just told her. Then he caught her eye. And the look on her face made his knees buckle.
It was a look of absolute and undisguised hatred.
What came next is a blur to Donald today: The police, the reporters, the newspaper headlines, the whispers when he finally did go back to school, the trial and ultimately the death sentence.
Later, as the family fought for his father’s life, he became the spokesman. He was trying to protect his mother, grandmother and sister: Meetings with lawyers, meetings with the Governor’s staff, media appearances, attending the endless court hearings on the post-conviction motions, petition drives and on and on.
People would ask him why he was doing it. “He’s my father,” was all he could ever think to say.
And every step of the way Morgan was there too, fighting to uphold the sentence — fighting, as she saw it, for justice for her family. One time Donald tried to tell her how sorry she was, but she walked away angrily. As their paths crossed repeatedly in various courtrooms, never once in the whole 19 years did she speak a word to him.
They had been two broken children, bound together against their will and through no fault of their own — and each responded according to his and her own gifts. Donald kept going. He finished high school, although a year late, took an academic scholarship to college and through a combination of grants, loans and guts made it all the way to his PhD in English.
Morgan, on the other hand, stood still. She dedicated her life to one thing — seeing Gill dead. It consumed her the way heroin does a junkie. She dropped out of high school and spent the next 19 years in a series of dead-end jobs and broken marriages. She told herself she’d get her life back together some day, but always it came back to the same thing — hatred of Gill and the quest to see him executed.
* * *
I don’t know if he was trying to fill the dead air, or whether he was really interested, but Tom started asking Donald about the case.
“What was your father finally diagnosed with?” he asked.
“He was bipolar . . . and they think he became psychotic at the end. We didn’t find out until he was on death row. The senile lawyer the judge appointed to defend him didn’t even raise the issue . . . He never even looked into it.”
“I know that was one of the points on appeal,” added Winston.
“Yeah, it went all the way to the Supreme Court,” said Donald. “They decided that the representation dad got at trial wasn’t bad enough to justify setting aside the verdict.”
“It was a five-to-four decision as I recall,” said Winston.
“Yeah . . . dad’s dying by the grace of one vote.”
“Jesus,” muttered someone, I’m not sure who.
Donald sighed. “I feel really bad not being with mom and grandma tonight. I flew out the last two times the date was set, but both times a stay was granted at the last minute. I just couldn’t afford to miss any more classes. I owe my students something too. And then there’s the money . . .”
“I’m sure they understand,” said Horace in his patented comforting tone of voice.
“I know, but it still isn’t right. I should be there.”
No one wanted to be caught looking at the time, but time was on all of our minds. I finally sneaked a look at my watch: It was 11:53. Gill was scheduled to be executed at 12:01, just after midnight. I thought I’d gotten away clean, but I guess Donald saw me look. “Eight more minutes,” he said. Then he smiled weakly and added, “I made sure my watch was exactly on time before I came here. I knew I’d want it to be precise.”
Zach looked like he was going to throw up. Maybe we all did. The tension at that table was thicker than anything I’d ever experienced before. It just hung there like an early morning New England fog.
And then, almost unexpectedly, it was 12:01. And everyone knew what that meant — that in another part of the country an IV was now running sodium thiopental into Gill’s bloodstream, soon to be followed by two other drugs, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. There’s controversy over how much pain the process causes. But the end result is never in doubt.
All conversation stopped at the large round table. Forgive the cliché, but it’s true, I could literally count the seconds by the beating of my heart. Three minutes became 10 minutes became 30 minutes became an hour; then finally Donald’s cell phone rang.
“Hi Grandma . . . so it’s over . . . I know . . . Are you okay . . . Yeah, I’ll be fine . . . I love you too . . . Okay, goodbye.”
A few tears were visible on Donald’s cheeks and his body was shaking noticeably, but otherwise he’d kept his composure. He put his hand up to his chin nervously, and then withdrew it.
“I know they killed a murderer tonight . . . someone who committed an awful, unthinkable crime,” he spoke in a halting voice, but was easily understood. “I know that. But they also killed a father, a grandfather, a son and a brother . . . and none of us . . . not one of us, did anything wrong.”
Then, refusing all offers of a ride, he left to head home by himself.
* * *
Zach has changed his mind about capital punishment, by the way. He told me as I dropped him off at his apartment a little later that morning, “I still don’t feel sorry for Gill . . . he got what he deserved. But Donald didn’t. And it just isn’t worth that. It isn’t worth making another innocent person suffer like that.”
Thanks, Zach, I thought to myself. I needed to hear that right then. I needed to feel the touch of human compassion. I needed the hope.
* * *
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 26 years. Contact Steven at scday(AT)buzzflash.com.
© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001
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