It's just a story.
Was, anyway. A small item in the court records, Sammy Jacobs, pleading not guilty but then asking for the death sentence. You wanted to know what sort of person did that. You thought there was an article in it, a think piece as it's known in the biz, perhaps for the Sunday colour supplement. There's nothing more poignant than Death Row. You knew at least three editors who would buy it sight unseen. Easy money.
You stand behind the curtain, in one of three chambers, waiting for the show to start.
Three chambers. The first for the press, the second for the victim's family and the third for the defendant's witnesses. Ordinarily, you would be in the first of those rooms, but Sammy asked you to be here, so you sit in the third, all by yourself, so you can watch him die.
He's a character. That was your first impression, what with the long whiskers and the stutter and the tourettish conflagrated thoughts. You couldn't believe your luck as you listened to him talk, grateful that you invested in that handheld recorder, the good one, so you could go back over every um and ah, every chuckle and mutter in pristine digital quality. You wondered if maybe you could use them for a podcast. That seemed to be where things were going these days.
That was the first visit, the first of many. How long did it take, how many visits was it, before you realised Sammy wasn't a character. He was a person. So obvious, but so often forgotten in our desire to make everything a narrative, with a three act structure, twists and turns, peaks and troughs, all heading to a redemptive climax.
That's not how it worked, though. Talking to Sammy, you came to believe that he was innocent of the crime for which he had been committed and knew there was no evidence that would clear him. You spoke to lawyers about finding some sort of technicality that might excuse him from death, but they all said that without his consent, they wouldn't be empowered to act. You asked him, bullied him, begged him, but he wouldn't listen. Wouldn't do what you wanted, what you needed, in order to fix this.
And you never understood why. Why would someone ask for death when they knew they hadn't committed the crime?
Everyone had a theory. Sammy was lying, Sammy was suicidal, Sammy was a martyr, Sammy was flat out dumb. All of them made sense and none of them were the truth and so none of them were what you wanted.
That's what it was supposed to be about, wasn't it? The truth. That's why you became a journalist and that's why you went to places few others did and looked at things that nobody else wanted to - because that's where the truth lay. Not in books with gilt-edged pages or in the balance sheets of a company ledger. Not even in the black and white print of the newspaper you work for.
No, the truth lay motionless in a hotel room, like the one they found Caprice Hennessey. Twenty one and already looking older than her years would ever allow, she had been raped and pistol whipped to death. A bad way to go, perhaps almost inevitable if she were a character in a James Ellroy novel, or perhaps something even more lurid that didn't have any notion of being literature. But she wasn't a character. She was a person. Was, because people stop being people when they stop breathing. You believe that, even though you perpetuate them through your words. All you're doing is making ghosts, creating phantoms with the thin images created to a deadline.
Not all ghosts have died, however. As you approach the glass in front of you, looking to the left reveals the reflection of Maurice Patterson, Caprice's father. He stares out at you and given the translucency of his image, you have to remind yourself that he's there in the flesh, standing in the chamber next to yours, waiting to see what society has deemed to be justice. You suppose that if you can see him, he can probably see you, but the look in his eyes suggests that what he's seeing is another place, another time, hopefully far away from here and with some kind of joy associated with it. You assume that he's thinking about Caprice - Monica, as was, because nobody names their daughter Caprice Hennessey unless they actually want her to be a stripper.
You remember trying to interview him, standing on his porch and trying to tell him that you weren't like all the others, you wanted to find the truth. He didn't buy it for one moment, and when he learned that you had talked to Sammy and were trying to fight for his freedom you got a concentrated dose of disgust, the likes of which you had rarely experienced in such unmetered form. His manners didn't fail, but he told you very clearly that you should leave or he would not be held accountable for his actions. You didn't have to ask press him any further, nor did you want to, not because of any kind of principles, but because sympathy for him and his dead daughter would cloud your story. Because that's all it was, then. A story.
If Mr Patterson remembers you or recognises you, he doesn't show it. You are the least of his concerns at this present time. He's not a character, either, but for convenience's sake you're willing to let him remain as something incidental. Empathy, it turns out, is a finite resource and your stocks are dry, perhaps because there is no-one in your world that replenishes you. If you were a cliche, you would have an ex that you could call, someone that you could tell that they were executing Sammy and despite all that you had been through together, they could say sorry and ask how you are. But there's no-one.
All this is distraction, though, and idle speculation falls away as the door opens and Sammy is led in by the guards. His eyes scan across the room and I've that the glass you assumed was one way is just glass and he can see everyone assembled to watch him die. You said your final goodbyes yesterday, but you wonder what happened between then and now for Sammy to look so different. Perhaps it's just the light in the room or maybe it's a night spent knowing that you are definitely going to die tomorrow. You can only imagine what that does to someone. You tell yourself that you've been vying with this reality for a long time now, but that's a lie you tell yourself to turn this into a story and to turn yourself into a character. You don't know what it's like to wait to die. At least, no more than any of us do.
You want him to see you, to concentrate on you, but that was never going to happen. Instead, Sammy's eyes go straight to Mr Patterson, as you suppose they would and maybe should, if Sammy had actually done what he was accused of. The reflection means that you can see both of them at once and you catch a moment where their eyes lock. Mr Patterson then looks at the floor and as far as you know doesn't look at Sammy again throughout the whole process.
It's then that Sammy makes eye contact with you. At first he looked in the press box and seems gratified that you are in the box for his witnesses rather than journalists. This is the only thing you could do for him, one last sign that perhaps he wasn't as alone as he thought and a final confirmation of the fact that you have absolutely no objectivity left when it comes to this case.
Case. There's another piece of obfuscation for you. Lawyers and luggage makers can talk about cases. Everyone else just sounds like an idiot.
The guards are horrifically well rehearsed as they firmly push Sammy into the chair and fasten the restraints on his arms and legs. You can't look away as they do this to him, even though the urge is strong. He needs to believe that he is not alone at this moment. You want him to believe it, even though you don't. No one in the world is more alone than he is at this very moment. You don't smile, don't nod, don't try and assure him that everything will be ok because you're not in a position to lie to him in these last moments. Truth should be basic courtesy, a fundamental precept for all human interaction, yet it's the most difficult thing to come by, the most precious resource you know of and the thing you hold most dear. At this moment, though, what you wouldn't give in order to be able to lie, just with a gesture or a glance. But you don't, because Sammy is a person and he deserves the best, even when everything is at its worst. So you just look at him, show him that you are here and he is there and even though nothing can change what's about to happen, you are in some small measure there for him.
As they strap him into the chair, the warden steps forward and begins reading the sentence. It is as you knew, that he has been found guilty of the crime of murder and in accordance with the laws of the state, he shall now be put to death.
"Do you have any last words?”
Sammy takes a breath, looks at Mr Patterson and then right back at the warden.
"I didn't kill anyone. The only murder I've seen is the one happening here today."
Nobody says anything to this. You glance at the glass to check Mr Patterson's reaction, but he's still staring at his feet.
"Y'all are murdering me."
Whether Sammy had more to say or not, the Warden decides that's enough and nods to the guards to get on with it. You glance around to see if anyone is actually noting it down, but that question is gone as the rest of the procedure continues. The hood is drawn over Sammy's head and it's this, more than anything, that confirms to him the reality of his impending. With the hood on, he is alone in dark, struggling to breathe through the black mask and given only the subtlest of clues as to when his life will be over. He can't see you, but you don't look away What would be the point of being here if you did? You're a witness - his witness - not just to an execution, but also to a crime. It's your job to record every detail, ever nuance, for the record.
And as you think that, the warden says "Roll on one" and somewhere behind a curtain a switch is thrown.
The lights don't dim, not like in the movies, but it's true that you can feel the charge in the air. Sammy tenses against his restraints and shudders with a power greater than any flesh was meant to bear. He spasms and twitches on one unified direction, away from the electrical current which is killing him. There is no refuge, however, so his efforts are for nothing. Whether they are a conscious attempt to escape or a simple bioelectrical reflex is something you'll wonder about later, but for the moment, all you can do is watch and keep watching as Sammy has the life burned out of him by his government.
For this, Mr Patterson raises his head. No longer staring at his shoes, he makes himself watch Sammy die, because this is the man convicted of killing his daughter and we as a society do this largely for the benefit of Mr Patterson and others like him. You want to know if it makes him feel better and you wonder if, perhaps, that might be some sort of consolation. Maybe in a story it would be, but in the real world, the truth is that nothing brings back a dead child.
You don't know how long they run current through Sammy's body. Your initial research says the initial shock is eight seconds, which is supposed to kill the brain almost immediately. then another twenty seconds and then another eight. Thirty six seconds to take a life. It doesn't hurt, not if it's done right. You hope it was done right.
The current stops and there is a moment of horrible expectation as the doctor checks Sammy's pulse. You've heard stories about people surviving and the process having to be repeated, but that's not the case here. The doctor confirms the time of death.
They close the curtain, as if it was the end of a play. No applause, though. Mr Patterson has already turned away, heading straight for the exit. He's seen what he came here to see and has no reason to linger. If you were here in an official capacity, you might hang around to talk to some other people. The arresting officer is probably here, maybe a lawyer or two. The wardens sometimes like to talk, a fact that you found distasteful even before you had any personal investment and which now seems positively ghoulish. But then, you don't know what it's like to be a prison warden and so who are you to judge?
Some sense of duty tells you that you should stick around, but they're not going to let you see the body (even if you wanted to), so you get out of that small room with its overlooked air. There are gates and turnstiles and buzzers to negotiate, registers to sign and bags to be checked until finally, finally, you get back out into the open air, where you can lean against your car door and just take a moment to process.
There's a momentary craving for a cigarette, just for something to do, until you remember the small and consistency of ash and it turns your stomach. You don't want to throw up, not here in the car park, not anywhere on the premises for that matter, and a few gulps of air mean that you're able to get your gut in check, at least for the time being.
A door opens and closes and another figure emerges from the same door you exited from. As he draws closer, you recognise it as Miller from The Times. He recognises you and comes over to say hello.
"Didn't see you in there," he says, as he lights a cigarette. The bastard.
You tell him that you were in the third room and he nods.
"Got close to this one, right?"
Does he know that from personal experience, you wonder, or has he just read other people's work? You're not sure you can compare notes at this point, whether from a professional or personal standpoint, so you just nod dumbly.
"Try not to dwell on it too much," he says. "It's over now."
He flicks his cigarette away, all three-quarters of it, and you watch it as it lands five metres away, still burning.
Miller says goodbye and you say the same but don't look up from his cigarette. If he drove away quickly enough, could you go and pick up the cigarette and take a drag? And if does that, will you? Probably not, but it's better than looking at Miller or his company car and waving as he pulls out in front of you. It's better than looking back at the building that Sammy died in and it's better than looking in the backseat of your Honda, where a bulging cardboard box full of papers contains everything you ever wrote, found or copied about Sammy.
If this was a story, you would take that to the dump, or the recycling centre or to a burning ashcan in your back yard and you would dispose of it all in one symbolic purging. You can see it in your mind's eye, page after page being subsumed until there was nothing left.
That would be an ending, of sorts.
If this were a story.