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Closer to the Morning

by Douglas Page 2013 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

I would have written sooner but I've been hiding. I couldn't contact you because you're the first place they would've looked. They could've traced the call back to me. I figured your house was being watched so I couldn't come over. So, I thought I would try writing. I don't think they can trace the mail. I've been laying low, being careful. Waiting. The boys in AA are keeping me in a safe house. I was in prison, but on the night of my execution I escaped. Maybe you read about it.

I don't remember what I did that got me in there. Sometimes it doesn't take much. And I don't remember how long they had me.

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Sometimes it seems like it's been a lifetime. Other times it seems like it all happened so fast, like the next thing I know they're leading me down this grey corridor that was lit too bright for the circumstances. I was freaking at the prospect of dying in a few minutes. It was weird, the thoughts I was having. Like, how much air can you inhale if you know it'll be the last breath you get? I thought of those people who can hold their breath for two or three minutes, like shell divers or the astronaut candidates in The Right Stuff movie, or the free divers who go down something like 100 meters without air bottles. I heard once the record is something like 10 minutes or more without breathing. I found myself thinking that'd come in handy now. Other ideas crossed through my mind. Like what if I could just stop breathing right now, on my own, and save everyone the bother of an execution - just lay down right here and die, if thats what they wanted. I wondered, if it was possible, if I'd have that much courage. Would a voluntary death give the system the same satisfaction without the dark rituals - the last meal, that last walk, without the last words in the death chamber when they tilt you up like a water-boarder to face the witnesses? Or would the system feel cheated? It's interesting what you find yourself bargaining for when your only two options are dying right now or dying in 30 minutes. The prison people weren't kidding and as much as I wanted

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this to be one of those admonitory nightmares so I could wake out of it in time, I couldn't wake up. I was obsessing - what else is new! But, what else can you do? They don't give you any distractions. They force you in the last days to sit alone, just you and the doom, with no magazines, no books, no nothing. I paced. Five modest steps to the toilet wall. Turn. Five modest steps back to the steel door. Turn. I paced until my feet bled. For variety I changed which direction I turned. I rehearsed while I paced the last minutes many times in my mind during that period, imagining how cool it would be if I could stay composed enough at the end not to reveal anything about the fears and terrors that were swirling inside me, but how do you hide the fact that a simple thing like breathing is becoming more and more difficult. I couldn't get past it. I was trapped there. Couldnt eat. Couldnt sleep. I was aware of my breathing all the time now, almost every one I took. I counted them, because there was nothing else to do. I noticed I was breathing through my mouth most of the time, panting almost, like those old boxers with the flattened noses. The looming fear was all I thought about. I trembled inside so much my muscles ached from it on the outside. How would it feel when they did it? How long would I be conscious? How long would it take to die? Would I snap and spit, panicked like some wild animal hopelessly caught in a trap, bucking helplessly at the thick leather restraints until the

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weight of paralysis subdued me? Does a darkness surround you first, then swallow you into it? Is there a noise, like the deafening roar they say comes with a stroke, trumping sound from all other sources? Or is it just a final, profound silence? Would I see that bright light they talk about? Who greets condemned men on the other side? Or would there just be a closing darkness that faded to nothing at all, not even a blackness? No other side. Just nothing. Not even nothing. I even wondered how I would look? I thought you'd like that, me worried about my hair right to the end. No one really knew how it would be. We could only guess. Our imaginations filled in the parts we dared not contemplate. Some of the other condemned knew, the ones whose last walk came before ours, but of course they never came back to tell the rest of us what to expect. There was a cruel guard around on some shifts for a while who liked to freak us with stories of what went on in the chamber down the hall around the corner behind the steel door. We didnt ask, but he said it can take sometimes 20 minutes or even more for the heart to stop all the way, that until then there was always the struggle, the futile thrashing and bucking, even though the condemned was supposed to be paralyzed by the first drug. The guard said that sometimes they secretly dilute the paralyzer drug so the condemned suffers as long and as much as possible, the way their victims might have, he said, so that they

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were left so they could move just enough to feel the strength of the big belts but no more, aware that they would never get up again or even move, never touch another human again, never even see one. They diluted other drugs, too, he said, that left you conscious but unable to beg, scream, or cry. He said you could see it in their eyes, the insensible terror of knowing, of realizing suddenly the drugs weren't strong enough, that they went just this far and then no farther, and there was nothing, not one single move or sound you could make to tell them because they have left you teetering above the abyss, unable to speak, wondering in your crazy mind how long this would last, wondering if it would ever stop. That guard used to laugh at that part. I didn't want to believe him, but he was the one that sometimes spit in our food trays before he slid them through the slot.

On the measured march to the execution chamber I asked them if I could sit for a minute and meditate. I think there were five or six of them. They don't like to be called guards anymore. They prefer to be called correctional officers. I always wondered what they thought an execution corrects. We called them guards anyway because that was about the only weapon we had. On the walk, there was one guard on each of my shoulders, big hard white guys, like defensive ends, and two behind me. The tie-down team, I supposed.

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One for each limb. None of them made eye contact with each other or with me. The chaplain was back there, peering down over his clerical collar, reading something from what I guessed was a Bible as he followed us. The hall had an inhuman smell of despair and dry piss. There were occasional scratches and stains on the walls that hadn't been painted over. The blemishes weren't all careless gouges left by mop buckets or food carts. Some looked too much like scuffs from shoe soles and diluted stains of blood and vomit that had been wiped over but not cleaned. I tried to keep my mind from wondering how many condemned had kicked and fought right to the very end of their last corridor, no matter how often they had practiced in their mind to maintain a mirage of composure. The ones who kicked and cried, were they the innocent or the guilty? Maybe when you get this far down the hall it doesnt matter any more. Youre going to die now, right on schedule. There are no other questions. I tried to focus on what the chaplain was saying but I was having trouble feeling my legs. There may have been others in the party but I couldnt concentrate. The warden was out in front, by himself, in a black suit that seemed too tight on him, leading the way. His pace was deliberate but not somber. His head was rigid and he carried a manila folder against his leg. I supposed the folder contained the sentence proclamation he would read to me once I was strapped to the litter by the tie-down team. No one

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said anything. It was silent except for the mumbling chaplain, my panting, and the close echo of the guards' heavy boots. Everyone seemed calm, but I was losing what little control I started with. I didn't know what time it was, whether it was morning or night. They never turn the lights off on death row and there are no windows. Some death rows are underground so the condemned must live out their years of appeals already half buried. First you lose track of what day of the week it is, then whether it's morning or night. Maybe it doesn't matter. I was walking on memory. An anxiety sweat had started and I think I had already peed the adult diaper they made me put on earlier. You don't see that in Depends ads. I could feel the guards on either side guiding me firmly. Each had a hand on one of my elbows, taking more and more of the weight. When I stumbled a little the guards caught me and slowed to hold me up. I asked them if I could sit for a minute. I needed to be still long enough to fix a thought in my mind that would give me a comfort to hold to while I died. I needed to find you. The warden stopped, turned around and looked at me over his glasses. Then he looked at the guards. One of them, maybe the senior one, shrugged, like what can it hurt, even though it was unauthorized. The warden raised his head, took a deep breath, and seemed to scan the ceiling, maybe looking for an answer. He looked at his watch. After a second he nodded his head, let the

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breath out and said "Okay". Maybe we were early. I dont know. He'd been around a while and probably just wanted the whole thing to go smoothly, to get it over with, on time. But, even if we were early a new guy would never have bent the rule like that. Also, I imagine he hated this part of the job. Any sane person would. The states executioner. I was a model prisoner. I think that helped. I never banged my head against the cold concrete walls, never bellowed or wept, or peed through the food slot in the door at them. Seems like there was always someone screaming or crying on death row. I never did any of that. I tried to make it easy on everyone. Thats me, right? Always the People Pleaser, right to the end. Before they took everything away those last days, then finally moved me to a solitary cell in the death house, I even let them read my journals. The parts the guards liked were the erotic scenes I wrote, especially the ones I did about female breasts, about sliding my hands slowly from the rear under the unhooked brassiere, cupping my hands underneath the bosoms, taking the weight, about how the bigger ones seem to want to slip right through your fingers even though you try to hold them as best you can, how cupping your hands didn't always work because the bigger breasts tended to roll over the side, like the lava in a lamp when the weight shifts. If you spread your fingers to compensate for the size, the breasts start to slip through the gaps, and you find yourself kneading them slowly with rhythmic

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fingers, like a kitten on a belly, juggling the warm flow. The guards used to elbow each other at the parts about thimble-hard nipples that felt soft and rough at the same time on the lip, like raspberries, and tasted faintly of talcum when you nibbled one just freed from its delicate hammock. I remember yours hovering above me, in free fall, exposed under an undone blue cotton work shirt that had nothing to be tucked into. One of the guards asked me once what someone like me was doing here, on death row. I said I didn't know. I couldn't remember. I used to ask new guards if they knew why I was in here, but if they knew they wouldn't say. I think they thought I was playing some sort of insanity ploy to get a pardon or commute. I wasnt crazy. I was just curious. I knew I would never get out. I was doomed. I just wanted to know what had happened. Another guard couldnt understand how I could make up such arousing stories when I was scheduled to die at the end of the month. I said I didn't know, but the truth was I wasn't making any of it up. The stories were all about you. I didnt tell them that part.

The warden nodded to one of the guards to open a door we happened to be standing next to, then they escorted me inside. The warden nodded again toward a folded metal chair that was leaning against one wall, between the sink and back door. The

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guard set the chair out in the middle of the room where they could see it better and motioned me to sit. I don't know what the room was for. Maybe custodial, but there wasnt much in it. It was as gray and empty as everything else around there, like all the paint came from the Navy. So I sat and began to conjure you while the execution party milled around out in the hall near the doorway, maybe relieved to get a little reprieve of their own. They looked in once or twice to see what I was doing. There was no laughter. Most of them don't like this stuff either. I heard them talking once that it's the mess they hate the most. The condemned almost always evacuate their bowels sometime during the exercise. Fear trumps all other instincts. Even bowel muscles forget how to work. The guards have to supervise the clean up. Maybe that was what the sink in the room was for. They said the diaper is hardly ever enough. I don't think they needed to worry about me. I hadn't eaten for days.

What was the point? There's a joke that passes from cell to cell on death row in the last days about eating as much as you could stuff in your stomach, especially the last meal, just for the revenge factor. Kidney bean chili and lime jellow was believed to form a remarkably disgusting effluent, the joke went, that if the timing was right it was like shitting a diseased snake. Death row jokes are never funny but you still can. laugh anyway just to see if you

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The room was only partially lit, from the harsh ambient light coming in from the hallway. No one bothered to turn on the light switch inside the door. Maybe they knew that meditation is always easier with the lights out. The door they left open. It was a regular office door, only wider. I was trying to decide if we were kissing in a beach parking lot, in an orchard, or holding hands on one of our long Strand walks when it hit me. Back door?! I looked at the escort party in the hallway from the cover of shadow in the room. They were standing around out there, pretty relaxed, talking amongst themselves, looking in every few seconds. It must have been March because two of the guards were arguing about the basketball tournament. March Madness. Indeed. I wondered if they appreciated the irony. The chaplain was still studying his Bible. I think the Bible was more of a comfort to him than to me. The warden was looking inside that folder. They didn't seem concerned about much of anything, except why UCLA was seeded so high. You would scarcely know that in a few moments they would be the crew that put me to death. Who could be in a hurry to do that? The warden looked at his watch again. "Two minutes," he said, leaning into the room. I waited until none of them were looking, then I got out of the chair silently and sneaked softly over to the back door. It wasn't hard to be quiet. I wasn't wearing shoes. Condemned men

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don't get shoes. Condemned men get cheap one-size-fits-all slip-on slippers. No laces. For some reason they dont want

condemned man to commit suicide. How would that look? The slippers let me move silently. Ha, I thought, the jokes on them. When I got to the back door or whatever it was I turned the knob as fast as I could. It was unlocked and swung open easily. I remember thinking I had nothing to lose. They could only be mad at me for betraying their trust for a short time. How could they hurt me? There was nothing more they could take from me. In 20 minutes they were going to take my life. It was surprisingly easy from then on, like a puzzle that was somehow solving itself. That back door opened without a sound and led to another hallway, this one dimly lit, so no light flooding into the room to give me away. I slipped out and closed the door gently behind me. The hall went both ways, but there was a glow of light at the end to the left so I went that way. Probably administration offices. I could hide in there until I figured things out. I hurried along, like a thief. I was a thief! I was stealing my life back. Ha! There were rows of doors on each side of the hall, some of them open. All the offices were empty at this time of day. All the office lights were out. Executions are performed on night shift, conveniently absolving the administration staff of complicity. The day workers could all come to work tomorrow and

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pretend they were not part of a state-sanctioned operation that killed people in that room at the end of the other hall lights were out after theyd gone home. My heart was pounding so loud now it seemed it was making more noise than my slippers as I jogged toward light at the end of the hall. Before, I was afraid of dying an undignified death, now I was afraid my heart-beat would betray me. I remember wondering how far I would get, which office I should hide in, whether I should slip into one of the credenzas there against the outside windows, get under a desk, or climb up and get behind the ceiling panels with the computer cables. I wondered how long I could hide there before the dogs found me or thirst drove me out. I noticed I was suddenly thirsty. How stupid; I probably should have taken a drink in that sink back in the room. I decided to keep moving. I darted quickly through the empty corridor until finally I slid to a stop by the door to what appeared to be the main lobby - a semi-circular hub, a cement block cavern with several doors leading into it, like a Roman piazza. The door I stopped by had a reinforced glass window just above the release bar. On the opposite wall across the piazza there was a set of giant steel doors. I guessed those led to the outside world. All the inside doors were closed. I had never seen this part of the prison before, of course. Condemned men arrive in the rear, out of sight of regular prisoners and office workers when the

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and are never allowed outside to exercise or see the sun. I glanced behind me anxiously. How much time did I have? The warden must have missed me by now. Inside the hub, menacing fluorescent lights lit the area with an industrial glare. A glass cage made up part of one wall, on the left side, opposite the double steel doors. There was nowhere to hide in there. Not even a sofa or coke machine to crouch behind. Two guards were behind the glass, one of them sitting at a cluttered desk, staring obsequiously at a bank of closed-circuit monitors, watching as remote cameras scanned the prison for anything irregular. I don't know why they hadn't seen me escape. Were there no cameras in the administration hall? The second guard stood nearby, leaning against the wall beside the rifle rack, reading a Playboy. So far I guess I hadn't been missed back there by the escort party. Everything was quiet. No shouts. No alarms. No phones. I leaned my hip against the push bar to test it. Miraculously, it swung open, into the hub. Still no alarms. I slid into the massive lobby slowly, then crouched down as far as I could under the bank of windows and crept across to the corner by the huge steel doors. I remember thinking, if I could get out there I'd be safe. But, the doors that stood between me and freedom were as imposing as a castle wall. It's over now, I thought. I can't get through there and I can't stay here. The other doors were probably locked on this

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side and only lead back into other wings of the prison. The warden and escort party will have missed me by now and would be looking for an alarm trigger. I might as well just surrender, I thought. Should I stand up and maybe wave a little? If they see me moving, trying to open the fortress doors they might shoot. It's what some of them lived for, shooting unarmed prisoners. Why that mattered to me I don't know. Dying from rifle shells ripping into my neck and chest was bound to be faster than the devil drugs they planned to drip into my blood while I was strapped helplessly to a pillowless gurney. It was all so confusing and dreamlike. I couldn't even explain how I got this far. Doors just kept opening. Prison doors! Crazy. I stood up and was just about to shout and wave my arms to get the attention of the guards behind the window, but thought maybe I should try the handles first. For some reason the guards still hadn't noticed anything. They hadn't heard me coming through the inside door. They hadn't seen me, not even when I stood up. Both of them were turned away from the big windows, facing away from me, looking down, fawning over a Playmate the second guard had dangled in front of the first. They both nodded and pointed in lecherous satisfaction, like junior high boys peaking through a crack into the girls locker room. I remember wondering if tits could save me again. Twice in one night. I almost smiled.

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I tried the handle while keeping my eyes on them. My back was against the doors. I could feel the stark, heavy steel through my prison shirt, so cold it felt wet and sticky, like a glacial wall. One hand I left in the air, already surrendered, in case I was discovered. The door was locked of course. The handle wouldn't budge. My head rolled back against the steel in absent resignation. Just then the phone rang on the guards desk and alarm bells started to sound in other parts of the prison. My shoulders sank, deflated and defeated. Well, hell, it was a nice try. How many people being marched to their death get away at all, much less this far? Just then my eyes landed on an object right next to me. How had I missed it? A large blue knob the size of a book was attached to the wall at eye level, with a metal placard beside it that said EMERGENCY RELEASE in giant yellow block letters. Without hesitation I pounded the knob as hard as I could with the side of my fist, screaming defiantly, a fuck you war-whoop. The door alarm went off with a deafening discharge. I spun toward the doors, heaved myself against the release bar. The door began to swing open slowly to the outside. A blast of humid, free air met me, air warm with promise. The massive gate continued to swing open, the alarms growing louder and louder. I thought I heard shouts now behind me. Suddenly, I was on the outside.

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I fled into the darkness dodging the frantic search lights without looking back, dashing through parking areas from shadow to shadow, then into the darkest streets and alleys I could find, unconcerned with what was happening in the din I left behind, running like a deer through the fields of youth, leaping toward the morning light. I had escaped! I laughed hysterically, swinging my arms madly, my knees dancing high, like a hurdler. I soared, unchained, invincible, invisible. I don't know how long I ran. It may have been hours. I ran so long and so fast my nose started to bleed. I only stopped once, to tear that fucking diaper off. I noticed my feet were bleeding, too. Somewhere I had lost those cheap slippers. Still, I kept running, driven by an insane madness to live, by the primal love of life itself. What did it matter if I got blisters? Nothing mattered but to get as far away from that place as I could, to get lost in the world somewhere, then eventually find my way back to you. At any moment I expected to hear the police sirens or the tracker dogs or the helicopters. My sides ached so much from running they felt like they would rip open from the pain. Still I ran, closer to the morning. I remembered seeing a t-shirt once that said 'Pain is fear trying to leave your body'. Good riddance! Then, like a miracle, I saw Bill's car. The big black BMW

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was just sitting there, outside his office, beside the propane shed. I must have run all the way to Sobrio Heights. Ha, I thought. They'll never look for me in a BMW. I remembered how Bill always left the keys under the front seat because he didn't like to feel them heavy in his pocket against his leg. That meant the car would be open. I jumped in, slumped down and felt for the keys, feeling suddenly safe in the dark leather opulence. There they were! I basked for a moment, catching my breath in that special silent sanctuary that comes with escape. Then, I fired the black sedan to life and drove off, screeching the tires, as fast as I could make them spin. Drive it like you stole it, the car salesmen say on test drives. Ha! Watch this!

Things happened slower after that. Even so, some of it I don't remember. I ended up at John's place by the Causeway just as he and Maggie were finishing breakfast. We let Bill know where his car was and by the time I had finished some eggs Maggie scrambled for me some of the guys from the morning meetings started coming by. Word was out that I was back. I stayed in John's pool house for a while, but I don't remember how long it was. Most of the guys were happy to see me, but a few of them were uneasy with what to do next, or whether they should do anything at all. A couple of them - I never learned who - were so conflicted about helping hide me from the police and how, at

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best, that might implicate them in some tangle of amends, or at worst, even get them into court for aiding and abetting that someone betrayed me. I stayed out of the argument. What was I supposed to say? So, in a way, I suppose it was bound to happen. The police arrived that morning with their dogs and guns from every direction just as I was watering some of Maggie's tea shrubs. She had always grown Camellia sinensis, was famous for those tea plants around the beach area, but lately she said she was cross-breeding the tea plants with some other species. When I asked about it she dismissed it with a wave. "It's a little gene-grafting experiment," she said, but wouldn't elaborate. Then she laughed. The re-capture could have been like a Bonnie and Clyde shootout, except these guys didn't shoot and neither did I. I hate guns. I don't understand the gun thing. Almost everyone has one, in some parts of the country. Some people I heard are even wearing them on their hip now in some places, like Cowboy Bob. Like the Wild West all over again. I don't get it. Are guns a hard-on that never goes away, that stay hard even in the holster? Don't they know respect cannot be cornered? Anyway, I went quietly into custody, as quietly as I had gotten away. It was pretty sad. All of us knew I wouldn't be back this time. This time the guards wouldn't let me out of their sight. We all knew that.

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I did ask them, though, if I could have just a second to finish the letter. I started to write it when they surrounded the house. I had already finished writing my will. The kids are to get the guitars, cameras, books, and tools. You get the stories and poems, and the songs in the blue folder on the shelf by the red Thesaurus. "I'll be right there, at the desk," I said. "You can watch. It'll just take a second." The police looked at each other. Their lips were pursed and their jaws were clenched. You could tell they didn't want any complications. I guess they were thinking what could it hurt. I hadn't resisted. The older one, a sergeant, tugged at an ear lobe. "Let me get you some tea while you wait," Maggie said, and headed off without waiting for an answer. "Oh, good, some scones left from breakfast," she shouted back from the kitchen. "Raspberry."

-end- end-

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