If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time or the tools to write - Stephen King, On Writing, p. 147
Weakness - Todd Rundgren
Weakness – Todd Rundgren
He laid the pen on the table and sighed, exhaling the last of his energy. The faded sheets of paper slipped neatly into the prison issue envelope. It sat, solitary, a reflection of himself.
There was no fight left. It had taken too long. Too many hopes raised and dashed on the rocks of justice. He was too tired even to raise his head as the guard unlocked the death cell door.
“Time to go James.”
He nodded, caressed the envelope a final time and walked the final three yards without protest. As he lay on the gurney he turned his head to the priest.
“You’ll do it?”
“I promised, James.”
He looked back to the ceiling, nodded and let them take him out of the world without a sound.
Father Davis tucked the envelope into his pocket and shook his head wearily. No more. James had to be the last time he stood the death watch. Thou shalt not kill. A staple of his existence and yet he had been at forty executions, watching as men, and women, were killed in the name of the law. The law of man, not of his God.
He stepped out of the cell and bowed his head as the gurney was pushed past, heading for the final trip. It hurt his soul to think that this had been the only way James could ever be free.
He patted his pocket absently; his official resignation close to his heart but there was a final task. Feeling the dragging exhaustion every execution left him with, he got his feet moving and headed for the exit.
A battered blue sedan sat alone in the visitors section of the parking lot. It was close to the end of its life, a hitching whine breaking up the purr of the engine. A slumped figure sat in the driver’s seat. Steeling himself, Father Davis tapped lightly on the glass.
She wound down the window and for a moment her face was empty. Wrapped in her sorrow his face meant nothing to her. Then the fog lifted and she opened the door. He watched her, the slump of her shoulders, the lines about her eyes, her mouth. Her hair was a rumpled mess and tear tracks scored through her roughly applied make-up.
The eyes she turned on him were reddened, heavy, unbearable. Her pain was raw in every fast blink that kept the tears at bay, for now.
“Tomorrow. There’s paperwork…”
She shook her head, a bitter bark of laughter cutting through the air.
“Haven’t they had him long enough?”
“He’ll be yours tomorrow, Angela.”
“What’s one more day, right? Twenty-five years. Another day won’t make any difference huh?”
Her eyes blazed, her anger surfacing, ripping through the depths of her misery and he took an unconscious step back as her hands came up, almost grabbed for his arms and then fell away.
“He was right. In the end, he was right.” She leaned against the car, hands buried deep in the pockets of her thrift store coat with the patched elbows, “There was nothing left to fight for.”
“Hope, Angela. We were fighting for hope.”
Her eyes flicked up, held his for a second and then dropped away. Her defeat was total.
“Perhaps you were Father. James gave up ten years ago. I wish I had let him go sooner.”
He knew that, at the end, it had been Angela’s battle. It had been her fight to keep the appeals going, to strive for clemency. James had been too beaten down, too tired to fight either her or the lawyers when they told him he had to keep trying.
Father Davis shivered. Was it possible he knew? Had James really known they would never grant him clemency? Whilst his wife and lawyers had fought for his life, James had quietly put his affairs in order and waited. Waited to die. His law books had gone to another prisoner, his radio to a second, his collection of mountain views to a third.
At the end, those last six months, James had simply sat in his cell. Sometimes he had slept; sometimes he had stared endlessly at the narrow patch of blue sky through his window. When the priest and lawyers visited he’d nodded, signed, smiled but his air of detachment had been total, accepting.
Only when Angela visited had he come alive. They had sat, silent, simply palm to palm, separated by the safety glass of the visiting cages. There had been life in his eyes then, when he looked at her. A lightness had engulfed him, a tangible aura when she spoke, told him she loved him, would never stop fighting for him.
Only once had the priest heard James ask her to stop. ‘Let me go babe. I’m exhausted’. She’d shaken her head, tears flying. ‘I can’t. I can’t let them take you’. That had been it. He knew because Angela would not visit without Father Davis along for support.
Even that harrowing last time. Such a short time. The pain driving her away, unable to be together at the end. The agony was in every pause, every brittle smile. The terror was in each promise that the call would come. The end was in James’ eyes, his gentle shake of the head. Her helplessness had been in the final touch of palms, her broken ‘I love you’, her staggering, tear-blind run for the door after he told her to leave, that it was hurting her too much for him to bear.
Now she stared at the perimeter fence, watched the hearse travel at indecent speed along the red dust highway. She hugged herself, unable to hug the man she had lost.
“I can’t take him home, Father. I can’t even take him home!”
The last was a rising wail and she finally collapsed, sobbing against his chest. He was lost, as he always was. What was there to say when everything was taken? Taken with such harsh, cold finality. When a wife could not afford to take her husband home to bury him where she could visit? Because all her money had gone on saving a life that the law was determined to end. A wasted life. No, two lives ended at the press of a button.
She straightened abruptly, accepting his proffered hanky, dabbing at eyes that refused to stop their tears. A constant trickle of pain that would eventually erode her soul.
“I’m sorry. I promised him I wouldn’t cry.”
“Easy to say my dear. Far harder to accomplish.”
“You have it?”
He nodded and withdrew the envelope James had left. She hesitated, some prescience touching her, startling fear into her eyes.
“He wouldn’t tell me what was in it.”
Her fingers finally closed around the slim envelope, all that remained of her husband’s final hours. She sniffed it, the ghost of a smile at her lips.
“Is it foolish to think I can smell him, just a trace?”
He shook his head and curled his hands about hers.
“It was important enough that he gave up everything else to write it, Angela” he paused, unsure if he should continue but her eyes were greedy for anything he could share, “He gave up his final meal, his last confession, everything… to write that for you. Perhaps some trace of his need, his love, passed into that letter. I have known stranger things,”
Her eyes said she knew he was humoring her whilst her lips smiled.
“I’m glad you were with him” she hesitated, drew a shuddering breath, “At the end. I couldn’t…”
The tears came anew and he placed a gentle arm about her shoulders, giving what little comfort he could.
“He didn’t wish it Angela, you know that.”
James had specified that she was not to be there. She had pleaded but he had held firm, for perhaps the only time in his life, against her entreaties. ‘This is the only battle I refuse to lose’ had been his final word on the subject.
Angela caressed the envelope, tracing the spiky handwriting, just her name, nothing more.
“Will you stay with me, while I read it?”
“It may be… personal” he tried but her thin shoulders shook and he stayed. She had no-one now. The least he could do was spare her a few more minutes. He watched her carefully unseal the flap, anxious not to ruin his last gift to her, and remove two sheets of notepaper.
For a couple of minutes the world fell silent, as if to honour her final moments with the husband she had last held at the age of twenty. The man she would hold for the last time at the funeral home, aged forty-five. Twenty-five years of hands against glass and her final embrace would be as cold.
Sound rushed back into the lot as she softly eased from under his arm and held out the letter.
“I’d like you to read it. Please. I don’t think he’d mind.”
Father Davis accepted the sheets reluctantly. He felt vaguely voyeuristic, very uneasy. Angela leaned against the car once more, gazing into the distance, waiting. He looked at the top sheet and began to read.
‘Angela, my wife, my lover, my life,
I guess I’m gone now. Don’t you cry girl. There’s been enough of that. I told you I was tired and it weren’t no word of a lie. The years have hung heavy in here baby girl and I’ll be better where I’m going. I’ll try and wait for you, if I can. I guess we don’t know what’s there really. All I know is that it’s gonna be better than here.
Except for you. It won’t be best ‘til you’re there too. I know what you’ve been thinkin’ these last weeks and I’m asking ya baby girl, don’t do it. We wasted twenty-five years of life getting nowhere. I can say this now. Never could with you there in front of me, never had the nerve.
It would have been better if I’d gone a long time ago; if I’d made you stop all those appeals that were never gonna work. You know girl, you were always my one weakness. I could never say no to you. I couldn’t believe a girl like you could love a no-hoper like me.
When you stuck by me, didn’t run when it all went down, I thought I’d just about explode with love. You knew I wasn’t innocent, that I’d end up where I did but you never gave up on me baby girl and I am so proud of you.
I know what you’ve been through. You thought you could hide but I saw those second-hand clothes when you sat between those sharp shark lawyers. I saw the heels that were worn to the ground and how rough your hands were from working crap jobs to pay them so they could live the life we never did. I watched the lines grow and the grey get into your hair.
You wouldn’t admit it but you were exhausted. That last time, I knew baby girl. I knew you couldn’t go on, that this had to be it. I had to go so you could be free. I talked to them lawyers and I did what I shoulda done years ago. I made ‘em stop.
I know you’re gonna be mad but it’ll pass Angie. You’ll quit screaming at me and then you can go live your life. Go do all those things we never got to do. Then, when you’re done, come tell me about it, ok?
Gotta go baby girl. Time’s tight. I love you.
See ya in a while.
Father Davis looked from the letter to Angela and watched as her smile joined her tears.
“I don’t understand why you wanted me to read it?”
“Because I need you to remember what he said about weakness Father. How weakness guides us a surely as strength. I’m going now” She retrieved the letter and placed it carefully in her pocket, “He knew I didn’t plan to stay without him. Don’t know how but he did. Now I can’t do it.”
“Much as I applaud that decision, I have to ask, why?”
“Because he told me not to” came the simple reply, “He was always my weakness and I would do anything for him. He’s given me something to do. Even if he isn’t beside me, he’s in here” she touched her breast above her heart, “and I want him to see that I’ll always be weak for him. Goodbye Father and thank you”
She got into the beaten down car and drove away.
The following day as he waited for her at the funeral home, the manager came creeping out from the back and called him through.
“I think you should see this” he whispered, “She was here for a couple of minutes and then gone”
Father Davis found himself beside James’ open casket. A single white rose was threaded between his interlaced fingers and a scarlet lip-print shone on his cheek. The envelope James had left for Angela lay on his chest but it had new wording. Angela’s name had been crossed through. It now read ‘Jamie, Gone to find our life. I’m sending this ahead, until I’m ready to come home to you. Love you, Angie’