My father always said I wasn’t much of a man. He’d tell me that a man fights for his country, a man comes home to a family with beautiful kids, and a man always has dinner on the table because he deserves it. Sometimes I think I could have had these things, but now as I walk this path, ankles and wrists handcuffed so tight blood streaks the metal, I know that it doesn’t matter anymore.
Society has deemed me a criminal; a criminal who must pay for this acts-his duties-A man who is sentenced to death.
Still, as I take each step closer to the gas chamber, guards-“men”-on both sides of me, I can’t be mad. These men hold my elbows tight and shuffle me along. I get the sense that they think I’m gonna run for it, as most boys attempt in this situation, but they’re dealing with a man now. Their faces are stern, and their names are stitched perfectly straight onto their uniforms: Tagalog and McBrayn. I wonder how many times these men have guided others down this bright stoned passage way, only to lead them to the end of the road.
McBrayn shifts my elbow up in one quick sudden movement. We make eye contact and he grins at me. McBrayn must not know what it means to be a man yet. I station my eyes to the pale floor and I can remember my brother Peter.
Peter was my father’s definition of what a real man is. He served his country, came home to a beautiful wife and kids, and never missed his dinner meal. Peter was the only one who still accepted me despite my defects. I can still remember the day Peter came to the jail and picked me up-that was my first offense to society.
That night Peter invited me over for dinner with his beautiful wife and kids, and since he was shipping out the next day, Ma and Pa would be there too. I chuckle to myself as I can still taste that meal in my mouth; haven’t had food like that in awhile. Warm mashed potatoes streaming down my throat, accompanied by shredded beef and glazed carrots, a tall glass of clear water, and unwanted broccoli trees.
Poor little Carrie, she didn’t even remember me when I walked through that door, but she wanted to be my friend when she saw that I was shoving my broccoli trees off my dish and onto another. Of course, Pa didn’t find any of this humorous. Not only was I the son that had gone to prison instead of war, but now I was a bad influence on the kids.
I suppose I can’t blame him, keeping in mind the way I looked and all. I had a pretty good beard on me-nothing too bad-but I could use a shave. My hair was about two inches in length; you can’t really stop the barbers at prisons from buzzing your hair off. And now I was showing the kids how to disregard their vegetables.
Carrie said, “Why are you shoving your broccoli off your plate?”
I smiled and looked her straight in those little bright eyes and said, “Well, because I hate broccoli.”
She smiled back, obviously pleased with my honest response and said, “Me too.”
And just like that, we had something in common, but our bonding would be put on hold. Peter made an easy gesture at me, wanting me eat a piece and set a good example, but I just flashed a side grin at him.
Peter took no offense and lightly interjected, “Carrie, eat your broccoli.”
Little Carrie looked at me for a response but I stood silent. It’s amazing how these little kids’ faces can be so quick to make you lose your words. I could tell she wanted me to eat a piece too, just to show her it wasn’t that bad, but I just stuffed another mound of mashed potatoes down my throat. She crinkled her little nose to show me she disapproved, which really just made me laugh. I didn’t know what else to do with Carrie; her stare was so serious for a little girl, so I changed the subject.
“Great meal Ma.” I moved my eyes over to her.
She smiled at me and just as she swallowed to thank me, Pa chomped his food at me and said, “Compared to what Jake?”
I knew exactly what he was referring to-jail food-how could I forget. I looked down. I probably shouldn’t have said a word. “Ya know, to other food.”
“Like jail food?”
And that’s when I scared little Carrie. I pounded my fist hard on the table next to her. I made everything rubble and everyone was startled, but I guess it’s what was expected from someone who just got out of prison. Someone was speaking to me about calming down or something, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Carrie. Her dark brown eyes filled with tears. We had just become friends, but now she was afraid of me. A single tear streamed her cheek, I wanted to wipe it, but I knew she’d get startled and probably cry. It was quite after that.
I cleared my throat and said, “So Peter, you’re shipping out tomorrow? What time?”
“Yes. Around noon.”
As he said this I heard a little sigh from beside me. I could tell Carrie wasn’t happy about her Dad shipping out again. Her little eyes screamed for him to say. She lightly shifted her broccoli and talking to her plate said, “Daddy only kills the bad guys.”
I looked down to the top of her little head and her eyes met mine again-maybe I could fix this. “And who are the bad guys?”
My father huffed displeased with my question, but before he could begin one of his speeches about how I was inferior to my brother Carrie said, “The ones with the beards.”
I chuckled out load at this one. Peter never grew out a beard, and it probably had something to do with this stereotype this little girl had conjured up in her head. Then I remembered my beard. “Well, what about me?”
It was then I knew she forgave me for my outburst. She smiled and tugged at my face. “No. Not you.” She smiled.
I hadn’t felt that good in a long time, but her little face with those big dimples and messy brown hair made me smile in a way that I didn’t know I was capable of anymore. I wanted the moment to last forever.
“Carrie,” my father interrupted, “Jake is not a good example. You look at your Daddy for that. He’s a man who fights for his country, not a man who had to fight for his food scraps in a cell.” He moved his eyes over to me.
Carrie looked concerned, and I could tell she didn’t fully understand. Maybe she was waiting for me to hit the table again, but this time I just sighed. Now I was the one shuffling my food around.
I stumble on my foot and Tagalog lifts me up saying, “Woah. You okay man?”
I nod and wonder if he realizes why I’m here in the first place. McBrayn twists his face in disapproval of Tagalog’s comment and stares him down. I can tell Tagalog was embarrassed for his concern for me, but at least the man had something in him that wasn’t dead.
If Peter were here I wonder if he could get me out of this mess, but then again, I don’t want to be out of this mess. I’m not what society has deemed me to be, but I’m okay with the decision of the jury because even if they didn’t sentence me to death, I know I wouldn’t be able to live with what I’ve done.
We’re approaching the door now-almost there-and now two other guards are standing on each side of the door. I gaze back down to my feet. Whoever thought blue shoes and an orange jumpsuit went together must have been one messed up person. We get to the doors, and the men start unlocking my cuffs. But now all I can think about is Elli-my beautiful Elli.
The smell of stale burnt peanuts fills the air, along with the mist of alcohol. It’s rowdy in here, like always, and the lights are dimed down.
“Hey man, can I get another beer?”
He nods at me, and I remember how much I hate this song playing in the background, not to mention how I hate watching sports-which is the only thing on the TV’s. I suppose alcohol will be my company for the night.
“Here you go.”
“Thanks man, what’d I owe you?”
“Don’t worry about it Jake, this ones on me.”
I half smile and nod, uncertain if this is a pity glass or not. I sigh and look down into the yellow waters of my beer. The foam’s almost gone and the bubbles are stuck in place with no where to go. And that’s when I heard it-that familiar loud laugh that would send any man’s eyes in that direction, only to find the most beautiful girl you’ve ever seen-Elli.
Elli is a tiny little thing in everyway. Standing at about 5’4 with a wrist sized waist. She has long brown curls that stream all the way down her back to her bottom. Her eyes are like emeralds, so bright it’s almost as though you can’t see when looking at her. She’s a wild little free spirited thing, but it’s her smile that’ll really get you. If you can get this girl to laugh-even just a smile-for that moment everything you’ve ever worried or felt scared about is gone. How a girl like this ever fell for a messed up guy like me, I’ll never know.
For a moment I look back down into the beer. I wonder if I should even approach her. I’d probably just screw it all up. That was the worst-making Elli cry is the worst thought I can conquer up-next to seeing little Carrie afraid of me.
Her loud laugh fills the bar again. Man, I love that sound. It’s the best kind of music. I wonder about the man making her laugh. Elli doesn’t fake things. She’ll only laugh when you make her and she’ll only cry when you make her. I wonder about the man making her laugh. Does he make her happy?
Her laugh stops midway and I look over to see what happened. She’s looking straight at me. The man she’s with stares at me too. I want her attention, but I figure it’s best to just turn back to the beer.
“Jake?” A gentle voice chimes as a soft hand molds to my shoulder. I’m a lot more muscular since I’ve been out of prison. I turn and face her-God how I miss that face.
“Elli Jacobs.” I shake my head smiling.
“Jake.” She puts the other hand on my bearded cheek and a big smile spreads across her face. I did it. I made her smile without even trying, but I don’t deserve her. “How have you been?”
“I’ve been okay. You know just hanging out since Peter’s been off.”
“And how’s everyone else?”
“Good. You know Pa’s the same.”
“Hm,” she hums. She looks down and her big green emeralds shine at me, “I missed you Jake.”
I smile, I’m happy she misses me, but I wish she didn’t. “So, who are you with?” I asked. I had to know the man she was with.
“Oh that’s my cousin Anthony. He’s in town from Louisiana. Remember I use to tell you stories about him and I when we were growing up?”
“Oh that’s him, huh?” I have to admit I’m relieved he’s not her new boyfriend.
“Will you come meet him?” She smiles again.
I look down into the beer. I can’t decide if it’s a good idea. “Um. Why not.” Her big teeth glisten at me again; I’ll do anything to make this girl happy. I stand up and she guides me arm in arm over to her cousin.
She introduces me and the kid is a really nice guy. A graduate student just trying to make it in the world, I remember when I was a college student. He’s everything my father would want me to be. A handsome man with goals and a bright future. My father could never deny that Elli was the best thing to ever come my way, and he was probably right. It’s no wonder she has such a great cousin-growing up with her as an influence and all. Oh Elli, I’d take care of you forever if I could.
The cuffs are off now and I think this is the part where I’m supposed to be scared. I admit it’s an eerie feeling knowing that you’re about to die. What would Elli be doing if she were here right now?
McBrayn pushes at me, but Tagalog stops him. Tagalog takes a hold of me and turns my back to face the chair. We look each other straight in the eyes. Something in his face is almost sad. I feel like he might know me. I look down. If I could start over maybe I would be like him, or maybe Peter. He sits me down and backs away a bit. Now his job and McBrayn’s are to watch me and make sure I don’t “try” anything, but they really don’t need to worry. The medic starts to strap my limps to the chair and I wonder if it’ll hurt-can’t ask a dead man right.
Once I’m all strapped up and ready to go the men all back away. The medic instructs for everyone to start making their ways to the doors-to the glass where they can all watch me die. Tagalog and McBrayn are the last to leave. I just sit there. I don’t struggle to get free or pull and use my muscles for the last time. I lay my head back and examine my room.
It’s just a simple square, absolutely nothing fancy. The walls are pale-tan stone tile rectangles. I’m centered perfectly in the middle of the room in a chair that reminds me of the dentist. Little sprinklers and gas tubes poke out from the ceiling. Pretty soon those gas tubes will be spewing venom into the air and I’ll be gone. How many men have sat in this chair-how many boys? How many innocents and criminals? It’s all just numbers in the end.
It happened the day I found out about Peter. The day we all found out he wasn’t coming home again. Peter had been a pilot in the war and his air craft had been shot down by the “bearded men.”
Elli and I had moved into a house together and I was finally getting cleaned up. We had so many plans-I had even given her a ring. It took me months of saving up, but I bought that girl the best ring I could find. She’d always say I didn’t need to buy her anything because having me home was the best gift she could ever ask for. Then she’d smile and pull her little figure around my waist. Her hands were so small compared to my back, she’d move them up and down and she’d always laugh and talk about how much space she had to cover.
I got a job working at a little place fixing cars. When I got home from work, Elli had dinner for me on the table. She refused to wear the apron my mother had given her as a “gift.” My mother said that women were supposed to wear aprons while cooking dinner, but Elli didn’t need an apron.
We ate dinner and talked about our days. Elli was in grad school working on a degree in Journalism. I always told her that’d be a perfect job for her since she talked so much, and then I’d add on that it was really because she was so pretty.
Our house was a making in the works, but I promised her I’d fix it up just the way she wanted it. It really wasn’t much of a house, but Elli loved it. I was almost done wiring the place up and filing down the sharp edges. Elli had pictures waiting to be hung around the house, and we had a room closed off and ready for paint. Purple she said; that was the color she wanted the office.
Elli and I were busy washing dishes when we heard a loud bang on the door. Elli jumped and some soap bubbles flopped up. We stared at each other, and for once those emerald eyes looked worried. I posed a little smile and walked over to the door.
Elli stopped with the dishes and stared at me as I opened the door.
“Jake,” my father said as he walked into the house. He stumbled a bit and I knew he had been drinking. “Jake, Jake, Jake, Jake.”
I shook my head confused but was startled by his stumble down. I caught him by the arm before he could hit the floor and motioned him over to our little wooden circle table. Elli stared at me and helped me sit my father down.
“Pa, what’s going on?”
“Jake.” He shook his head now. “This is all your fault.”
“Pa, what do you mean?”
“Peter! Jake! It’s all your fault your brother’s dead.”
“If he didn’t have to pick up the extra slack because you can’t find your way to being a man, this would have never happened. He could have had a normal job here in town like you. But you Jake, you took it all away from him and his family.” He stood up and chair hit the ground behind him.
Elli stepped back against the sink, and I placed my hands out trying to figure out what was all happening. Peter was dead? My nerves jolted and I felt sick to my stomach. I was trying to make sense of all this when my father came charging at me. I hit the floor hard and he straddled me punching away at my face. I wanted to stop him, but I didn’t know how. I tried to think about what Peter would do. Before I knew it Elli had pushed my father off of me and had fallen over me from using all her weight to get him off. Her stomach pounded deep into my chest as she breathed hard, I could feel her tiny rib cage popping in and out. I pulled her up into a sitting position when my father came at me from behind. His arm was flexed hard across my throat as he stood me up.
“It should have been you Jake. You’re the screw up,” he growled as I pulled at his forearm trying to grasp some air. Elli shoved herself in between me and my father, forcing him to let go. I heard a slam and then Elli scream. I turned fast and pushed as hard as I could.
My vision became clear and I realized the front door had been slammed open. I turned over to the wall to find Elli sliding down with a stream of blood trickling down her face. It was then I realized the slam was my father running out-like a man or a coward I’m still not sure-and it was Elli who I pushed hard against the wall.
I busted the back of her skull open. Her long brown curls were soaked red down her tiny back and her green eyes were flickering in and out of focus. It didn’t matter if I ran to her, after my father, or to the phone. Elli was dying. I grabbed her small frame and I never new anything to be so lifeless. Elli had more life in her than anyone I’ve ever known, maybe that would keep her alive. I wanted to squeeze her tight, but she was so frail. Her big eyes focused in at me one last time, she smiled small, and her eyes closed shut.
I called the police like you’re supposed to do and tried to explain the story, but since I’d already been deemed a criminal and I was the one who pushed her I was taken back to prison. No one will believe an ex-convicts story. My father was right there in court; he heard my sentence and didn’t even wince. He just filed out along with my mother-he didn’t even turn back to me.
As I sat in the chair and stared at the men through the glass I wondered if my father had remembered that night. But like I said, at this point it doesn’t really matter anymore. Peter’s gone, Elli’s gone, and soon so will I.
I heard the door bolt seal itself tightly shut, and within seconds I could hear the fumes starting to bubble out of those gas tubes hanging from the ceiling. The noise was almost peaceful. I looked through the glass as I saw Tagalog behind all the other men gesture the sign of the cross over his chest has he removed his hat. Maybe I did or didn’t know this man, but one thing was for certain, Tagalog had a respect for human life-and that was a trait of a real man. I knew that the night I held Elli in my arms.
The room was filling up with the venom and I began to choke and sweat. My body was revolting trying to escape the holds my limbs had been tied down to. I figured it must have looked really ugly, but all I could see was beauty. The faces of those I loved and the moments in life that were worth remembering. Little Carrie saying she wished she could have my crystal blue eyes and Elli’s long brown hair, Peter smiling coming to pick me up, Ma’s great big bear hugs, and then Elli, beautiful Elli.
I may have done a lot of things wrong in my life, but there was one thing that I knew for certain. A man loves, and loves with all this heart. I loved Elli and I loved Carrie, Peter and Ma. I was no boy. I could feel my lungs filling to the top and felt like my chest should explode. I released one long last breath, and I knew that if I were right about anything it was that I had died a man.