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Tuesday, June 12, 2001
By Paul Ford
The eve of the execution.
Last night we sat on the back porch of a farmhouse: Ray, Rebecca, her lover Eileen, and I. We lined up empty wine bottles and beer cans along the railing. Ray poured the last of a Corona on the ground and said “for the dead,” which made us all laugh. Rebecca said, “I used to do that.”
“8 ball,” said Ray.
“Crazy Horse,” said Rebecca.
“I can't drink Crazy Horse,” said Ray. “It's piss.”
“I used to get drunk as hell on Crazy Horse when I lived in Albany because it was so cheap and I was dating this guy, right” She paused. “Eileen -”
“Go ahead, tell it,” said Eileen, rolling her eyes.
“She knows this story. So he's as big as this beer can. I swear to God. I mean it really wasn't feasible in general.”
“Is this funny?” said Ray. “Or another horrid, pointless narrative?”
“This is a story,” said Rebecca. “Don't be threatened. So we're really drunk and we decide to take a bath together and he decides that he wants to take me from behind. And he really has to convince me it'll be all right. So finally I say, sure, okay. I'll try it.”
“He positions me and I feel a, like, poke, and I just am like, oh my holy Moses shit no. What was I thinking? So I move out of the way, total animal reflex, just sort of press over to the side, and this is a really cheap apartment, and he's pretty focused on applying pressure and he's sort of steering, so he pushes forward and goes over the edge, falls over. I just see these feet sticking up in the air.”
“The tub tilts over as he's going, it's this clawfoot tub and one of the feet was actually on a sort of wooden stilt on a cinder block, and the stilt gives out, and the tub comes down and hits the cinder block and the whole tub actually cracks open.”
“I just start screaming because I'm convinced it's going to fall through the floor, like in a movie. But it doesn't and finally I jump out, but of course I fall and bash open my head. So I'm drunk and really confused and maybe with a concussion. And he's in pain, and water is just going everywhere because we messed up a pipe. It's like 4 in the morning and my roommates are all standing in the hall and I go out there totally naked and I immediately just vomit all over everything.”
Ray and I laughed.
“So I tell them what happened and I'm so drunk I just tell the truth. So the water is just pouring out of these old pipes and I'm crying and I say, 'we tried to do anal and the bathtub exploded.'”
“Of course we can't find the key to the basement to turn off the water. Finally we find it and turn it off and my friend Susan takes me into her room to clean me up and I tell her the whole story. And I remember she sees the gash on my forehead and says, 'it looks like his aim is pretty bad.'”
“How did you recover?” I said.
“I was totally ashamed. I couldn't talk to anyone; I wanted to move out but my boyfriend was an asshole and wouldn't let me move in with him, or really spend the night, and of course I found out it was because he was with someone else the whole time. But finally everyone just sat me down in the living room and it's like three weeks later and they brought out this cake that had the words 'we love you even if you are a total fuck-up' on it.”
“Who made the cake?”
“Susan. From scratch. She was amazing.” Eileen's face tensed.
“How did we get from malt liquor to destroying a bathtub?” I said.
“It seems like a really natural progression to me,” said Eileen.
“In Israel, I made some joke about malt liquor and no one knew what I was talking about. It just doesn't exist. And you can't really explain it without explaining the way it's marketed to poor people. And then I had to explain Billy Dee Williams.”
“How did you explain that?”
“I gave up. It's a really complex cultural problem. And Crazy Horse, you know, they were sued by the descendents of the real Crazy Horse--”
“For six horses, and some blankets, and some sweet grass. Fantastic. A truly great lawsuit,” said Rebecca. “They paid it, too. They delivered sweet grass and horses.”
“At least that's something we haven't been able to take overseas. The Lexus and the 40 Ounce. Not yet, at least.” I said.
Rebecca put her hands around Eileen, standing behind. Eileen is 6 feet tall, fat, hair cropped, huge breasts and hands, a rarely smiling, straight mouth. Rebecca is small, in her 30s; she serves as some kind of integral cog in a large law firm that serves Brooklyn city government. They'd met on #bigbeautdykes or #angrysappho or somewhere similar a year ago. We'd only been up once before, but on this trip it had become clear that Eileen didn't like Ray much, and only tolerated me.
The conversation came back to the execution.
“Canada is three hours from here,” said Ray. “We could give up citizenship for a day.”
“That's a good idea,” said Rebecca. “Canada has great health care.”
“But have you been up there?” I asked. “It's like a foreign country.”
“It is a foreign country, you shithead,” said Eileen.
Everyone laughed at me. I smiled, looked at the ground. Eileen walked a few feet, out of the cone of light projected by the back porch light, out to the barn.
“She's angry at me for telling that story,” said Rebecca.
“I think it's more about how you were praising Susan,” I said.
Eileen came back, and I said, “I think it should be every American's right to execute something. I think it's time we took execution away from big government and made it something we do in the community.”
“I'd like to see more faith-based executions,” said Ray.
“I think I should be able to kill something. I feel totally uninformed without hands-on experience.”
“Join the Army,” said Rebecca.
“Look what it did for Tim McVeigh,” said Ray.
“Still not hands-on. You shoot from a gun, or in a tank. It's a video game. I want the feeling. I want to be the executioner. Not just another pansy liberal. I'd like to know exactly why I'm against it.”
“It's not like anything,” said Eileen.
“You've killed people?” said Ray.
“No. I've killed animals. At least 150 lambs by now. It's not a profound. My father killed Japanese soldiers in the Philippines. He said it was something you don't feel, just something you think about later. But he could remember their faces. And he's this classic racist, he called the Koreans who joined our church Japanese, said they all looked alike, but he can remember the Japanese he killed.”
“And do you feel anything with the animals?” I asked.
“I don't even think about it. They're not pets; they're income. Lambs aren't cute. They're expensive.”
“There it is,” I said. “Pure economics. At least that makes sense. But McVeigh is never going to threaten us again. He's annihilated. It's 168 to 1, so when they kill him, he wins, the Government gains one point but still loses by 167 points. My friend said they should build a prison on the bomb site and make him live there so that he might somehow realize how stupid he was.”
Rebecca said, “The memorial site has a gift shop. You can buy teddy bears. They're going to have a lot of teddy bears at the memorial and balloons. Oklahoma knows how to execute a man with dignity. They call it a memorial shop, not a gift shop.”
Eileen snorted, and smiled for the first time since we'd arrived. She wore blue jeans and a plain shirt, the same outfit I had on.
“Eileen, what do you think about the death penalty?”
“Paul, you've never killed anything, right?”
“You're a meat-eater?”
“You want to kill something? You want to kill the sick lamb?”
She had a dozen lambs; we'd gone out to pet them earlier in the day. One of them was ill and segregated from the others.
“I put it off today, but it's been ill a week and the antibiotics aren't working. Do you want to do it?”
I looked at Ray. He shrugged his shoulders.
“We can burn it,” said Ray, laughing at me. “It'll be a big token sacrifice for McVeigh.”
“We will burn it,” Eileen said.
I looked at each of them. “Sure, why not?” I said. “If you're going to kill it anyway.”
Eileen laughed at me and disappeared into the dark. Ray and Rebecca were talking but I didn't listen; I thought about feeding the lambs earlier, their tongues soft in my hand. She returned with the sick lamb in her arms; it was asleep.
“Here,” she said, transferring it to my arms. It was very warm, soft. “I'm going to go get some firewood.”
The night was humid, and I stood and breathed the animal's smell.
“You going to give it fine Rayish love before killing it?” asked Ray. “Peter Singer says it's okay.”
“Is she fucking with me?” I asked. Rebecca shrugged.
Eileen unloaded the wood - a wheelbarrow's-full - inside a ring of stones. The lamb stirred in my arms, then went back to sleep. Prompted by Eileen, Rebecca went into the house and came out with matches and newspaper to start the fire.
Eileen rose and looked at me. She ran her finger gently along the lamb's throat. “You use some force,” she said. “It's a really sharp knife and you just cut hard straight through. Take off your shirt.” She took the lamb from me.
Hesitating, I took off the blue Oxford, my shadowed chest and big stomach exposed in the dark, darkened by black hair. Ray whistled. “Why have you been hiding that beautiful torso?” he said. “We're going to Chelsea tomorrow to show you off.” Rebecca tried not to laugh. Eileen put the lamb back in my arms, and I felt the wool directly against my body, lifting the hair on my chest. The lamb nuzzled against me.
“Put it on the picnic table,” she said. She put the knife in my hand. It was all steel, with a steel handle. I tested it on my finger and it went straight through the skin.
I waited, feeling ill. Rebecca and Ray stayed back near the porch.
“Just cut clean and quick,” said Eileen. “I'll hold it still. Pull the head back and pull up hard.”
“Is that right? Like this?” I pantomimed the killing. “Will it know?”
“It's not the right way to slaughter a lamb,” she said. “We'd normally hobble it and turn it upside down. But it's sick and docile so it'll be fine.”
I leaned over to feel its breath, slow. It tried to rise, confused. Eileen gripped its hindquarters and I grabbed it under the mouth with my left hand and pulled back. I leaned over, my right hand going around its back. Rebecca had started the fire, and the orange light reached to the table, turning the gray wool orange.
I sliced with a hard drunken pull, and felt the wool and skin give up to the blade, tiny pressures and vibrations; I drew hard across the neck. Different strands and tendrils of muscle disconnected, gave up their integrity. A warmth flooded over my hands, and the body of the animal tensed, then quieted. Its legs jerked for several seconds in soft, gentle kicks, then stopped.
I picked it up from the table; dead, it was heavier, colder. Blood was on my hands, on my chest, in its fur. Ray stared at me. I went over to the fire and threw in the carcass, sparks rising as it hit the wood. Ray brought another wheelbarrow of wood to the flame, until it was as tall as his chest.
Eileen turned off the porch light, leaving only the fire. I pulled a wicker chair off the porch and sat, my shirt in my hand, as the smell of burning wool and flesh came through the air. I thought of the men selling gyros and kebab at Rockefeller Center. I watched the body diminish, the moisture burning out, the creature's face alien without the wool, meat crackling in the heat.
“Do you feel different? Do you feel like you know something?” said Eileen. I put my shirt back on.
“No,” I said. “I didn't learn anything.”
I woke the next morning with blood still on my arms, and went down and put on the radio; McVeigh had just been killed and they were interviewing Oklahomans who were cheering the news. Someone had said the Lord's prayer and after the Amen, yelled out “Die, McVeigh.”
I recited it myself. My grandmother had taught me; she was Methodist and she said, “forgive us our trespasses” where I, Presbyterian, said “forgive us our debts.” She also taught me the 23rd Psalm, and I thought not of the part about the shepherd, but “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” And it goes on to say, “for thou art with me,” but I don't believe he is.
I could not remember how or when I'd gone up to bed. Too much booze. In the fire there were only wet ashes; the body was gone. Later in the day Rebecca made us lunch, frying peppers and onions with vegetarian sausages. She said, "I saw your lamb, Paul. The neighbor's German Shepherd was dragging it across the lawn. I yelled at it - they're not supposed to be over here - but it gave me an amazing snarl." She did the snarl for us, showing her teeth and growling from the base of her throat, and then she laughed.