Prelude To An Execution

The Last Supper

“Do you have anything to say?”

“Like what?”

The prisoner was seated calmly on his bare cot, his head lowered.  He wouldn’t meet the eyes of the preacher, who stood beside him looking down.

“I’m going to hell, anyway, padre.”

“That’s not a given.”  The preacher sat down on the only other place there was in the narrow, stinking little cell, a wobbly wooden chair.  “God forgives sins, but you have to ask Him for forgiveness.”

The prisoner just shook his head, without lifting it.  He had bushy hair, and he was only thirty years old.  It was a pity to see a man with a lot of life ahead of him going this way, on a scaffold.

Your soul, Charlie.  Your soul goes on.

“I don’t believe in anything,” he said.

“Your soul, Charlie,” the preacher said, with a rush of intensity.  “Your soul goes on.”

“It goes on?  Where does it go?  Do you know?”

“No one knows for certain.  It’s a question of faith.”

“I don’t have any faith, padre.  You’re wasting your time.”

“I have plenty of time.”

“That’s right, padre.  But I don’t.”

The prisoner glanced up at the clock on the wall behind the solitary guard who sat at the desk just below it.

“I’ll be dead in two hours.”

“It’s plenty of time to recant, to confess your sins and enter God’s Kingdom free of guilt and shame, your soul scrubbed clean of all evil.  Heaven will find you spotless.  Isn’t that something to look forward to?”

The prisoner gave the pastor a withering look.  His lower lip trembled, but he run his hand over it as if to disguise it, and then he looked away.

“You sit here giving advice about the afterlife, about which you know nothing.  You come here and take up what’s left of my valuable time preaching this garbage and expect me to dance with joy because I’m going to heaven?”

He snorted his contempt, his eyes afire with a strange luminescence.

“Don’t you believe in anything?” the pastor asked.

“I used to believe in myself,” he answered.  “But that was a long time ago, when I was still young.”

“What did you want to do with your life?”

“I didn’t have no plan.  When my pa died, I left the farm an’ moved to Owenville.

I fell in with some deck and dice fellas in town.  They wuz runnin’ a joint fleecin’ tourists.  I made a few bucks, but I left soon enough.”

 

“And then?”

“I met this woman.  She wuz rich.  An’ she was beautiful.

She invited me up to her house.  It wasn’t no house, it was a palace.  A mansion.  Servants.  The place was filled with silver and gold, statues an’ paintings – the ol’ masters, she’d call ’em.  I never seen anythin’

like it.”

“You stayed with her?”

“For about a month.  She gave me some money and tol’ me to take a hike.  She din like me no more.”

“So, what did you do?”

“I went to Frisco.”

He glanced up at the clock again,  without any emotion.  Then he glanced at the preacher.  “I’m just spinnin’ a yarn here, padre.  Killin’ time.  Waitin’ for the inevitable.  How’d you think I feel?”

“How do you feel?”

“I don’t feel much, padre.  I never have.  I don’t really care if I die.  I never cared much for life, anyway.”

“But you’re afraid.”

“I’m just afraid of the moment of death.  I just want it over with, padre.”

“That’s all?”

“I would have killed myself, but that’s a sin.”

“So, you believe in sin?”

“No, I don’t, padre.  But sin believes in me.”

The preacher looked nonplussed.  “I don’t know what you mean by that.”

The prisoner splayed his hands in front of him.  “Well, it’s like this,” he said, in a calm voice.  “I din wann be bad, but sin turned me into a thief and murderer.”  When the priest looked at him quizzically, he added:

“I never looked for sin, it was just always there.  I never saw a good man in my life – nor a good woman.  My pa, he was a drifter until he settled down, in South Carolina, runnin’ bootleg whiskey for the stills.”

Catching the missionary’s eye, he added: “He worked the farm, but he stopped caring, and then it was all about the booze.”

“I still don’t understand what you mean.

How could sin turn you into a thief and murderer?  Sin is the act of doing something evil.  Sin doesn’t come before the act.”

“Well, not in my case, padre.  Sin found me before I even knew what the word meant.”

“How did that happen?”

“I was introduced to it by my baby-sitter.”

The preacher’s eyes remained steady.

“She gave me booze.  I was only ten.  I got drunk and when my dad came home, he whupped me good.”

“That isn’t the end of the world, Charlie!”

The preacher sprang to his feet, energized by the opportunity he saw in bringing the sinner back into the fold.

“You had a terrible life, young man – but it wasn’t your fault!”

“That’s right.  Like I said, sin found me.  I didn’t have to look for it, padre.  Every step in the world I took, there it was, fully displayed in all its splendor, like a lovely bouquet of flowers.  Just the perfume alone, padre, can drive a man crazy!”

“But God gave every man the free will to decide – between good and bad.”

“Well, nobody tol’ me that, padre.  I din know.”

“But if you confess now, before dying, your soul will be cleansed and you will go to heaven.”

“How do you know that?”

“You have to believe.”

“Why?”

“Because it was Christ’s message.  He died on the Cross for us, for our sins.”

“Well, shit, I can’t help that, padre.  I din have nuthin’ t’ do with that!”

“Yes, did.  You are part of humanity.  You’re a person, an individual, a man with a brain and a soul.  You must confess to save your soul.  Do you want to spend eternity in Hell, Charlie?”

“Can’t be any worse than Kelsey’s Diner.

“Don’t joke, Charlie.  In less than two hours, you’ll be meeting Him.  St Peter.”

“I always wanted to meet him.”

Charlie smiled, hunching up his shoulders in a gesture of doubt; he was grinning like a Cheshire cat.

The missionary looked commiseratingly at the prisoner.

“You don’t have to pity me, padre.  I’m ready to die.”

“You don’t care about your own life??

“No, not really.  Din you say Jesus died on the Cross?  Was He afraid?”

“Yes, he was very afraid.  He was just a man, like you and me, and he suffered all the punishments and scourging of an ordinary man.  But after death, he went to Heaven to join the Angels.”

“The only angels I know are the California Angels.  They’re bush league, but they’re a great team.  Ever been to Wrigley Field, down in LA?”

The pastor didn’t have time to answer him.  The prison bar door opened and a guard came in carrying a tray of food.

“Yer last supper, Charlie,” he chirped, with an Irish accent.  Glancing at the pastor with a guilt-ridden look, he added: “Pardon the reference, your holiness, I didn’t mean anthing by it.”

He placed the tray down on a small table beside the prisoner’s bunk, and glanced at Charlie, then, as he was between him and the pastor, he said to him:  “He’s a good man, padre,” putting an arm on his shoulder.

“I’m sure he is.”

Charlie turned to his meal.  “It ain’t what I ordered,” he said, finally, in a disappointed voice.  He looked down at the food as if trying to outstare it.  He made a face.  Tha guard paused at the gate.  “Couldn’t get any T-bone steak, Charlie.  Sorry.”

“I don’t like Salisbury steak.  Never could eat it.  Makes me sick.”  He gestured to the tray, with disgust.  “You call these mashed potatoes?  And the beans, they look like they took sick and died!”

The pastor’s eyes shifted back and forth from the guard to the prisoner.

“That’s all they got, Charlie.”

The guard left, closing the gate behind him.

Charlie looked at the missionary.  “I ain’t eatin’ that!”

“It’s your last meal, Charlie.”

Pushing the tray toward the pastor, he said: “Why don’t you eat it?”

“I’m not hungry, Charlie.”  He leaned forward with a quick glance at the meal, and smiled encouragingly.  “It looks really good.  Why don’t you eat, Charlie?”

“Did ya know, when they hang you, all that garbage in your stomach just pours right out of you, like shit through a tin horn?  Did ya know that?”

The pastor sat back, blanching slightly. He hadn’ had much experience with death house visits.  “I-I didn’t.  Perhaps you should think of something else.”

“You mean my soul?”

“Well, that’s a start.”

The prisoner changed his position a little bit, shifting uncomfortably.  “I just want it to be over, padre.  C’n you understand that?”

The preacher nodded.

Time passed and the clock moved forward to midnight.  Charlie had watched it click over from 11:59 to 12:00.   He heard it click.

At that moment, the delegation that was to escort him to the gallows arrived.  The pastor got to his feet.

“It’s time,” one of the men in dark clothing said.

The Irish guard was there, too, smiling gently.  “C’mon, Charlie.  I hope you’ve said your prayers.”

“Well, like I was tellin’ the pastor here, I don’t believe in prayers.”

“You’ll go to Hell,” the Irish guard said, without a trace of malice or bad humor.

“I don’t believe in Hell,” the prisoner said, as they shackled his ankles and arms.  They led him out into the passage, the pastor following.

As the procession started off toward the lynching, the pastor stood back.  “I’m going to leave now, gentlemen.  I’ll be praying for you, Charlie.”

“You afraid to see me die, padre?” he asked.

“No.  I don’t like the spectacle of execution.  I’ll be serving God better outside this prison, where my prayers will have greater impact.  I’m going back to my parish.”

Charlie, looking back over his shoulder, said: “Good luck to ya, padre.  I hope you find Heaven, even if I don’t.”

“Goodbye, Charlie!”

The minister left the prison.  The big gates clanged behind him with a send of finality.  He wondered if he had done eveything he could.  He was convinced that Charlie was going to Hell, but there was nothing more he could have done.

As he walked home – just a short distance from the prison – the darkened streets seem to convey an atmosphere of a sinister nature.  Behind every tree lurked a shadow, and behind every window of the houses he passed, there were eyes watching him from behind drapes.

He chased away the phantoms with a wave of his hands, and with a shudder continued along as before, seeing his house come into view.

As he stepped onto the porch, he was suddenly seized by what he thought was an epileptic fit.  He struggled to remain on his feet and grabbed the bannister for support.  He managed to sail down slowly to the chair on the porch.  He put his head back, not knowing what had hit him.

But in a moment, he heard a voice inside his head, and he knew it could only be Charlie’s voice, screaming above the din of some horrible voices in torment.

“I’m in Hell, padre!!!  Please get me out!!!  I’m being sucked under – I’m going fast…save me, padre…save me, p-p…”

But the voice was gone, and the preacher awoke as if from a dark dream, such as he had never had in his life.  It was clear to him, though.  He had sent a man to Hell because he hadn’t managed to convince him to recant.  And now, forever and a day, the prisoner would be in perpetual torment.

THE END

 

 

 

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