Pacum Aeternum

“Our system is a prime example of enlightened penology,” I say.

Hubert “Sonny” Gilcrist, also known as the “The Saint Paul Slaughterer,” fails to share my benevolent enthusiasm.

Sonny stands convicted of twenty-four homicides, all involving the infliction of torture by means of electric shock, bar-b-que forks, pliers and hydrochloric acid. To prove contrition for his barbarities, perhaps to brag a bit, Sonny led police to his torture room where two dozen corpses were stashed inside freezers. He then took them to the shallow graves of twenty-five more victims rotting in fields surrounding the home he shared with his invalid mother, her seventh husband, four pit bulls and a parakeet named Julia.

I have thoroughly reviewed his file.

Condemned to die, Sonny now lies strapped, Christ-like, to a gurney ergonomically designed to comply with orders of the U.S. District Court. Undue physical or emotional stress inflicted on an inmate during the course of execution by lethal injection “constitutes cruel and unusual punishment as that term is defined by the Minnesota and U.S. constitutions” says The Court.

“Comfortable?” I ask.


Sonny curls his head toward me, his eyelids veiled. “Screw you,” he says.

“I understand your feelings, Mr. Gilcrist. I’d probably feel the same if the shoe were on the other foot.

I lean forward in my chair and inspect the titanium restraints binding Sonny’s arms and legs, one pair clamped around his thick, hairy wrists, the other pair around his equally Cro-Magnon ankles. All four, fully padded, neither pinch nor bruise his skin nor impede his circulation. The latter factor honors yet another order of The Court and will assure that everything goes smoothly during the execution that will unfold within the hour.

Impeded circulation could obstruct the flow of chemicals essential to the smooth and painless end to Sonny Gilcrist’s life.

I settle back. “I’m sorry, did I introduce myself? I’m Howard Kline. In past days I might be called an ‘executioner.’ Nowadays we use a team approach. My job description is ‘injection protocol facilitator’.”

Sonny’s eyes roll upward. I don’t mean to bore him but I must explain the protocol. It’s my job and I take it rather seriously.

I lift my check list from a small wheeled table by my chair. It is fastened to a clipboard, a ball point pen hanging from a string.

“A technician will join us shortly, Sonny. Are you left or right-handed?”

Sonny looks at me as if I have just passed wind.

“We need to know which arm to use for the injections.”

Sonny snorts. “Take your pick, scum wad. I could punch your ass across the room with either one.”

I sigh. “I’m trying to help. No one should have to undergo a botched execution, whatever his crime.”

The technician will locate a prominent vein in which to insert a tube. The chemicals used in the protocol will be injected through the tube by a trained and licensed physician; one with prior protocol experience.

At last, Sonny seems to show some interest. He looks at me and appears to think. I notice he has very little forehead.

“So you’re not the guy who shoots the junk inside me?”

“Oh no: that would clearly violate your rights. I have medical training but I am not a physician. My job is preparatory. I draw the chemicals into each syringe. There are three in all. I monitor the insertion of the tube and assure the sterility of the field. That means I see that everything is clean and sanitary.”

Sonny laughs. “Sure don’t want no damn infection. Could screw up volley ball practice.”

I gently cough. “Maybe I could skip ahead a bit, pass by some of the ‘gory details’ as it were.”

“Pass away,” says Sonny. He’s grinning now.

I check off the remaining items on my list, then date and sign the forms, noting the time that I do so.

“The first injection will render you unconscious. The next two drugs will be injected soon thereafter. You should feel nothing when that happens: no pain, no burning sensation, no awareness. Eminent authorities verify that the entire experience is much like falling asleep.”

“Only without the wake up part, right?”

I nod again; it is the least that I can do.

“Correct.”

*   *   *

I rise, stretch, walk to the only door in the room, step out, find my water bottle resting on a counter in the ante room and take a hearty swig.

I wonder why I’m always thirsty. It may not be particularly glamorous, but my work is essential. People commit horrendous crimes. When caught, when charged, convicted, when sentenced to die, society demands the sentence be precisely meted out.

I know that the execution ritual must proceed with dignity, that the rules must be strictly followed, in spirit as well as letter.

That’s where I come in. I am the party in the process assigned to prisoner liaison. I explain the process to the condemned, try to avoid misadventure. I am the face on what is otherwise an anonymous production; one which could easily be experienced as robotic and indifferent. My work entails compassion; an attempt to elucidate, to involve. To reassure.

My last swig empties the plastic bottle, which I throw into the trash. I am proud of what I do.

*   *   *

Madeline arrives on time, as always.

I hold open the door for her as she wheels her cart into the room. She stops by Sonny’s gurney, which, as I mentioned earlier, is ergonomically designed. She nods and I switch on an operating room light directly above Sonny. It is very bright; Sonny squints and turns his head away while Madeline adjusts it.

She doesn’t look into his face. Instead, she looks at me. “Which arm?” she asks.

I shrug: “Either one: he doesn’t indicate a preference.”

The table that Madeline uses moves up and down. She adjusts it upward. The surface is covered with a starched white cloth. Her instruments of glass and metal, her wipes containing disinfectant, are laid out neatly in a geometric pattern.

She dons gloves, takes a length of rubber tubing, slips it under Sonny’s arm and knots it at his muscled bicep. Sonny glares at her: “Easy, bitch!”

Madeline ignores him. The inside of his arm already faces upward, exposing ropey purple veins that run along his forearm to the elbow.

“What happens now,” I say, “is that a needle attached to a thin glass tube will be inserted into a vein at your inner elbow. Have you ever had your blood drawn?”

Sonny doesn’t answer. He just glares at Madeline.

“It’s like that. Hopefully it can be done in one try.” I nod at Madeline.

She taps on one of Sonny’s thicker veins, wipes the area, slowly inserts a needle, then attaches a glass tube to the top.

Sonny stares stonily at the ceiling. Madeline tapes the glass tube to Sonny’s arm, the top end capped with reddish rubber. She unties the tubing around Sonny’s bicep and wheels her cart out of the room.

*   *   *

It is dark outside, approaching midnight. There are no clocks inside the room, no windows. It is as if this place exists outside of time and space, like a casino.

Neither Sonny nor I have spoken since Madeline left. Sonny could be sleeping: his eyes are shut, his breathing deep and slow. I sit on my chair and check my watch from time to time.

A door slams somewhere in the building. Sonny’s eyes pop open: he isn’t sleeping after all.

He turns his head to monitor the sound.

“The coroner,” I say. “The doctors aren’t due for another fifteen minutes.” Sonny shuts his eyes but his breathing is now shallow.

“There’s one service I can offer you: an option not required by statute or any order of The Court.”

Sonny’s eyes re-open. I pull my chair closer to his gurney in an effort to be intimate.

“I mentioned that the first of three injections will render you unconscious. That injection consists of sodium thiopental, a short acting barbiturate, eighty ccs in an aqueous solution. Then the second drug, pavulon, goes in. Pavulon is a muscle relaxant that paralyses the diaphragm, arresting breathing. Finally, potassium chloride concludes the protocol, causing cardiac arrest and death.

“Up yours!” Sonny snarls.

“Witnesses will attend, of course, and you are free to make a final statement before the protocol commences.”

Sonny writhes from side to side a bit, his face gone black. The bonds hold fast and soon he stops, his massive chest heaving up and down. His breathing gradually recedes.

“State law and the orders of The Court require that I fully advise you of the procedure in advance, so that you can prepare yourself accordingly.”

I hunch my chair another inch toward his gurney. “You have the right to request that another drug or drugs be added to the first injection. That’s the option I’m referring to.”

I drop my voice to just above a whisper, as if the room were a confessional.

“Pursuant to an NIH grant, a research study is underway to assess the responses of the brain and central nervous system to the chemical ‘mixture’ used in the procedure. The State is concerned that lethal injection provides as humane a process as possible with modern scientific alternatives.”

“Talk English, or shut up!” he says.

“I’m saying the government is trying to make executions more pleasant; more a bridge to eternal rest than painful eradication, through the use of modern drugs.”

Sonny’s face leaks curiosity; uncertainty; distinct traces of dubious suspicion. “I get a state-paid high to speed me on my way, that it?”

“That’s not the purpose of the offer. They want to study you. But that could well be the result.”

I see that he’s considering.

“Electrodes would be attached to your scalp to monitor your brain waves, heart rate and respiration. Don’t worry, they’re painless. The added drug or drugs go in effect as the barbiturate relaxes you and I guess you’d say that Sonny Gilcrist ends up sailing happily to that distant shore, a smile painted on his homicidal face.”

“Which drugs?” he asks.

“You have three choices: pentithol, dilaudid and/or a new synthetic drug I can read to you about. It’s similar to ecstasy, but better.”

A concerned consumer, Sonny asks, “Which one’s best?”

“That depends. Given a choice, what physical sensation would you most enjoy experiencing during the procedure?”

“’Physical sensation’? I’d enjoy jamming a snub-nosed .38 into your punk-ass mouth, run it across your teeth. See the panic sweat break out on your faggot face. Pull back the trigger once or twice, release it… After about five, ten minutes doing that, I’d enjoy the physical sensation of planting a nice fat slug right there in your cuspids, then sticking a couple follow-ups in your skull so I can see grey stuff hanging from the wall.”

I nod. “Dilaudid would seem the proper choice to me.”

Sonny shakes his head ‘no.’ “Thanks anyway. I’ll pass.”

“But why?”

“It’s my choice, right? No one else’s.”

“Yes, but you’ll die much more happily adding these very useful drugs to your procedure.”

“Shot them up yourself, they’re so damn good.”

“Be sensible,” I say.

“Fuck you,” he says.

*   *   *

I carefully fill the three syringes in the ante room, my work supervised by the physician in attendance as required by state law.

The potassium chloride syringe is the first one I prepare, then the pavulon. The third and last syringe, the one that is injected first, contains sodium thiopental, the fast-acting barbiturate that will gently lower Sonny Gilcrest into his final rest.

I draw 80 ccs of liquid into the last syringe and show it to the doctor. He nods assent and then, exactly as I’ve planned, the telephone on the nearby counter rings. The doctor turns to answer it and I withdraw precisely twenty of those eighty ccs, place the syringe beside its brothers on a tray quite similar to Madeline’s and cover them with a starched white cloth the size of a linen napkin.

When injected with the first syringe Sonny will appear to fall into a deep, untroubled sleep. That doesn’t mean he won’t participate in the sequence of events; with the diminished dose of sodium thiopental he most certain will. Sonny will feel the pavulon arrest his breathing apparatus. He will experience utter helplessness, hopefully despair. He will undergo an anguished gasp for air, a prolonged drowning which will occur completely beyond notice of the witnesses.

I know it isn’t much, burying Sonny alive like that. It’s really not enough, not compared to what Sonny’s victims suffered. But it will have to do. The finesse of a scalpel rarely matches the brutal power of a .38 revolver.

Sadly, I’m not in the room when Sonny crosses to the other side; it’s better that I’m not. I’m told the protocol goes smoothly, that death occurs twelve minutes after the first injection is administered. I don’t ask if Sonny smiled or gave a final speech.

I’m not surprised that he refused my offer of a palliative injection. I knew he would: I counted on it. What other choice did he have left to make? A serial killer cares nothing about scientific research or advancing a faceless bureaucrat’s career; it was my own research study he declined a role in, after all.

Thanks, Sonny. I’ve done all this before, you know. I’ve done it many other times before.

Before I leave the chamber for the final time I ask him what he thinks awaits him at the far side of his journey. Heaven? Hell? Oblivion? Tibetan resurrection?

“Pussy,” Sonny says. “A two pound Porterhouse, medium rare, with lots of fries, steak sauce, a frosty Coors. A big screen Sony HD TV set with all the cable channels; HBO, the platinum sports package. A Browning automatic, ten thousand rounds of ammo: hollow-point. My electric shock machine, all my tools; a thousand spooks to use them on. And you.”

I ask Sonny if imminent death frightens him at all.

On that he does not hesitate. “No way, scum wad. Fuckin’ bring it on.”

Which is precisely what I do.

***

Barry Herzog is a retired attorney living with his wife in Malibu, California. His previous publications include short stories “Days Of Awe,” published in Pangolin Papers in 1998 and “Confession,” published in The Edge City Review in 2000. His personal essay/memoir “Pediatrics” was published in Volume 3, Relationships And Other Stuff (Stories From Men) in 2010.

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