Sleeping in the cell, after “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff
Seymour’s last meal had been overcooked, which, at least to him, ruined what should’ve been a perfectly civilized execution. There was no reason for it not to be civilized, after all. He had confessed right out to those “despicable acts of human indecency” of which he was accused. No sense in lying about it, anyway. He was unsure whether it was delusion, hellish rage, or straight up boredom that drove someone to murder, but whatever it was he had quickly figured out that people can smell it on you. And so, he offered little protest to anything brought up in court, with the exception, of course, of when his lawyer — his own lawyer! — had claimed that Seymour himself was insane. Honestly, how rude must a person be to insult a man on his way to death row like that? Even the decision to put him to death had elicited no such objection from Seymour. He knew he deserved to die; at least, in an objective sense. As he lay down in his small, rectangular cell, he thought about this and about how there was no reason for this transaction to be anything less than pleasant. However, after enduring the blatant disrespect with which the prison chefs had handled his meatloaf, all courteousness on his end was out the window. Now he was determined to raise as much hell as possible on his way down there.
He stared into the small TV buzzing in the corner of the death watch cell. It was one of three luxuries that Seymour was offered to indulge in for his remaining hours on earth. The other two were listening to a radio or reading, both of which he would’ve traded in for an earlier sentence without hesitation. The TV was alright — the reception was bad, but he was watching a weather report about the massive snowstorm set to hit early tomorrow morning, and how it was likely that many people would lose power. He would’ve laughed at the poor bastards, but he caught himself when he remembered the three guards who were watching him through the two-way mirror at his back. He loathed that he was being observed, and had actually protested to it when the idea was first brought up. It seemed to him a form of cruel and unusual punishment to take a man whose utter hatred of people had driven him to murder quite a few of them and then force that man to spend his final hours surrounded by a bunch of strangers. He could almost hear the guards on the other side of the glass — one of them had made a snide comment over his sub-par meatloaf, expressing relief that he “hadn’t asked for people-meat instead.” That was just childish, honestly, and very disrespectful. As if just because he was a murderer, all his standards went right in the shitter. He had half a mind to inform the guard that he probably had a more refined taste in meat than she did, but he kept his mouth shut. After his meal, he wished he hadn’t.
The worst of all, however, must’ve been the priest; a thin, nasally man who came into the chamber around nineish to ask Seymour all sorts of questions about Jesus and hell and people-meat and the Bible. God, Seymour thought he’d never shut up. It took a threat to “personally waltz up to heaven and castrate St. Peter” to convince the priest that Seymour wasn’t interested. He was far more concerned with the few hours of rest that he were permitted from 6 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., when they would start going about the myriad of “preparations” that apparently had to be done. He looked to the bottom corner of the TV screen for the time. He couldn’t make out the last number, but it was 11:20-something. With a sigh, he repositioned himself and wondered, for his last few minutes of pseudo-solitude, whether that time the priest had stolen from him really made that much of a difference. He concluded, just before one of the guards came in, that it really didn’t, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be upset about it. It was a matter of principle, y’know?
The guard laid out a new pair of denim jeans and a blue collared shirt on the bed before giving him a few minutes to change. He stripped himself of his jumpsuit and dressed himself for execution. The jeans, he reluctantly admitted, were comfortable, though he wished he didn’t have to wear so much blue all at once. Talk about tacky. It was ironic, he thought, how many times he had expressed distaste in an outfit by saying he “wouldn’t be caught dead in that.” He made a mental note to mention to one of the guards that they should probably stop using that phrase as well, on the off chance they end up in his situation.
At about midnight, the three guards entered the cell and escorted Seymour to the execution chamber. It was even smaller, with a big gurney — to which he was probably supposed to be strapped — taking up most of the cell, and the entire room was a gaudy lime green color that didn’t much compliment all his blue at all. He peered into the two-way mirror on one of the walls, beyond which he guessed about 50 people were seated to watch him die. He laughed at the irony. After all, wanting to watch people die was most likely what got him in this situation. Had he known there were free showings down here, maybe things would’ve turned out differently.
The guards laid him down in his chair and spent about five minutes strapping his arms and legs down, which Seymour thought was perfectly purposeless. Coming from someone who knew very well how to murder a person, they weren’t doing too great. He’d never heard complaints from his victims, and they’d certainly never been bored about it. It had always been a quick, clean, easy ordeal. After securing him, the guards left and the medic came in to insert the needles into his forearms. There were two of them, complete with long transparent tubes that coiled their way back behind him and into the wall, from where, Seymour assumed, the death would be coming. The first needle, inserted with an entirely pointless swab of rubbing alcohol, was quick and easy, but the medic had a little trouble locating the vein on Seymour’s right arm. After about eight minutes of searching accompanied by Seymour’s demands to “see your medical license to make sure you don’t accidentally kill me,” the needle was inserted and the medic went to work wiring him up to a heart monitor. After he finished, he scuttled out of the room. Seymour counted to a hundred before the warden came in, wearing a black suit and tie instead of his usual pompous uniform. He then stood a few feet away from Seymour, his arms crossed behind his back to make sure everyone knew just how highly he thought of himself, and looked him over.
“Do you have any last words?” the warden asked.
Seymour thought for a few seconds before replying.
“You should really let me live so I can teach you how to properly kill someone,” he said. “The system you have in place here isn’t very efficient at all. If I were in charge, I could’ve had this whole bitch finished before lunch.”
The warden grimaced and shook his head.
“May God have mercy on your soul,” he said.
The warden then turned and exited the room, shutting the door behind him and leaving Seymour, apart from his invisible spectators, alone at last. He laid back in his chair and let the fluorescent lights wash over his closed eyelids, indulging in the silence. For the first time in many years, he felt comfortable — completely separated from all these people whom he had grown to hate so sincerely, freed from all worries of the future and ready to embrace whatever isolation death had in store for him. With a smile on his face, Seymour fell asleep.
Seymour’s sleeping was, of course, not of his own volition. It was the result of the five grams of sodium pentothal, a barbiturate that had, at the touch of a small plunger, run from the back room through the intravenous lines connected to Seymour’s forearms and, finally, into his bloodstream, to make him lose consciousness in less than 30 seconds. This alone would almost always kill a person, just as any overdose of opioids would. However, over the following five minutes or so, the lines were flushed with a saline solution, and a second plunger was pushed. This one injected 50cc of pancuronium bromide, a neuromuscular blocking agent that relaxes the skeletal striated muscles during tracheal intubation and surgery. In this case, it was being used to paralyze Seymour’s respiratory system. Then, in an act of security which would have elicited from Seymour an endless tirade of ridicule, the lines were flushed again and, with the press of a third plunger, filled with 50cc of potassium chloride, which would stimulate cardiac arrhythmia and, eventually, stop his heart.
Before all of this occurred, however, Seymour was asleep — just as asleep as he was the night before, just as asleep as his executioner would be that night, and just as asleep as most of us will be for most of the nights of our lives. And because he was asleep, as he had been a thousand times before, Seymour’s mind began to dream, and — though the process of the execution only lasted a few minutes — used its few comparative hours of cognizance remaining to wander through the life that was about to be completed.
Because we know little about dreams, there is not much that can be said about what we dream of and why we dream of them. Some people find solace in blaming their dreams on particular foods or movies and the like, but it is usually safe to say that nobody really knows or cares about the answers to such questions. However, because the nature of his mind and its workings in its final moments was so peculiar, it would be unacceptable to ignore exactly what it was that he didn’t dream about.
Seymour didn’t dream about his arrest, when his door was broken down by police officers like a scene straight out of “Starsky and Hutch,” when he was handcuffed and placed under arrest for a series of almost a dozen murders. He didn’t dream about how cold the handcuffs were, or how it felt to have such an unflattering mugshot on most, if not all, of the local news stations.
He didn’t dream about the first time he killed a person, about the electricity of it all while it was happening and the sickening emptiness he felt afterwards. He didn’t dream about ending up, somehow, in the shower at his home with the water as hot as it could go, letting it scald his face and chest until it ran cold. He didn’t dream about the rush of horror and excitement and ecstasy and nausea he felt after he got out of the shower, and he didn’t dream about the first time, when murdering a person, that he felt nothing at all.
He didn’t dream of the first movie he saw with his girlfriend and how bad it was, and how it didn’t really matter that it was bad because that wasn’t the point, and he didn’t dream about the point, which was that her arm was resting on his and their fingers were locked together. He didn’t dream about the way she looked at him before he did those things, the way her eyes dug into his like he was just about the best thing she had ever seen before. He didn’t dream about the way she looked when he broke up with her, how confused she was when he kept saying that he wanted to keep her safe, and how she cried when he said that he didn’t understand it either.
He didn’t dream about dropping out of college, or finishing high school with honors, or moving out of his dad’s house when he was 16 to live with his friend Nathan, who was more like a brother. He didn’t dream about crashing on Nathan’s couch, or playing cards with him and his friends, or staying up to study and ending up throwing things at each other and laughing their asses off at something that definitely would not have been funny had it not been three in the morning. He didn’t dream about graduation, when Nathan’s parents took pictures of the two of them and hugged them both and talked about how proud they were. He didn’t dream about how his eyes had burned when he heard that.
Nor did he dream about his mother, who used to rock him in her arms while cooking dinner and who put him on the big chair in the living room when he went to sleep. He didn’t dream of when she started to stand up to his father, shouting back and even swinging once. He didn’t dream about waking up one morning and finding out that his dad was going to drive him to school today, and every day after that.
What he did dream of, however, was much more curious. He dreamt of a car and an old back road that his dad took him down to go catch frogs and snakes and critters down by the stream. He is six, his head dangling out the window, his eyes closed, catching sun rays and horse flies with his forehead. The car swerves a second too late and jolts a bit before screeching to a halt. The father curses under his breath before getting out and walking around the back. Seymour gets out too and carries himself with wobbly knees over to where his dad is standing. The two of them look down at the raccoon they just hit, barely alive and heaving out panicked breaths. Reaching into the back seat, the father picks up a rifle with a short, exasperated sniff and tells Seymour to wait in the car. Seymour pleads with his father not to kill it. His father says that it’s going to die anyway and tells him to get in the car again. He obeys, and covers his ears with his hands to muffle the crack of the rifle as it cuts through the air. After it’s done, Seymour starts to cry and his father puts the gun away and climbs back in the truck. He turns and looks at his son for a moment. “Hey,” he says, “c’mere. I know that’s rough buddy, but he was dying anyway. He was in pain, y’know? It would’ve been wrong to just let him stay like that. He didn’t feel a thing this way, I promise. It was just like falling asleep.” Seymour considers this, as young boys do, and nods, wiping his eyes. Then his father starts the car, and off they go.
The pancuronium bromide is already making its way, albeit slowly, along the tube toward his bloodstream. Eventually it will finish the job that was assigned to it, weaving its way along his anatomy and bringing Seymour, one fibrous muscle at a time, to a halt. But as the transparent death inches its way across the lime green execution chamber, Seymour’s brain is perfectly content where it is — in a rusty old Jeep speeding its way towards the stream to catch critters under the glimmering sun, and far away from the roadside where a raccoon was just killed as if it were only falling asleep.