My shift just ended and I was driving home in my old red truck thinking about the execution tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM. A guy who works in the warden’s office catches a ride with me, so I swung by, picked him up and we headed out the gate toward town.
“How’s it going, Dave?”, he asked, “tough night on the row?” Mac knew I had three guys awaiting the chair; one tomorrow and two more within the next week. The shift I had just come off of was one I would never forget and would be hard to explain, so I just started talking to Mac about it.
“Well, you know George, the old guy who has been on the row for nearly ten years now is going down in the morning. I swear, George is a saint among men! It makes me feel better just to talk to him-don’t know what it is about that guy. Something just shines from his face or something. I am going to miss him I’ll tell you! Old George has a way of even calming the real bad ones down.”
“Tonight George had his priest come to see him-to pray with him and give him the last rights and all. As soon as the priest got to the row, the other two started up with their yelling and cussing-making fun of George and the priest for believing in God and Jesus. It was a pretty bad scene.”
“The priest had to walk past that guy Dorcas’ cell-you know, I told you about him. He’s the addict-still coming down and really shaky and tweaking. All of a sudden that idiot Dorcas grabbed the priest through the bars-got him around his neck in a choke-hold! I have to tell you, Mac, I was afraid I was going to have to shoot my first inmate! Dorcas was yelling, ‘I got ya now you snivelling coward, God gonna save ya?’ and stuff like that. While that is going on, Zebran-X, the child molester and murder I told you about, was yelling obscenities and satanic tongues. I am here to tell you I was shook up!”
Mac asked with his eyes wide and wondering, “Did you have to use your weapon? Man, this sound like heavy stuff even for The Row!” I went on to tell Mac what happened next. “The priest was choking and Dorcas was laughing his head off, so I took my nightstick and picked up a brick off the floor. My adrenaline was running pretty fast, I guess, so I was able to separate the priest from the choke-hold and grabbed him away from Dorcas. I held up the brick to Dorcas and threatened him with it unless he went to the back of his cell and stayed there. The idiot did it, still laughing and cussing at the priest.”
Mac wanted to know if the priest had been hurt, so I went on with my story. “We heard Old George saying something. What George, I asked. ‘Please let the priest come in over here. Is it all right with him?’ The priest was okay, a little shaken up, but said to let him into see George. He knew George’s time to go to the chair was 6:00 AM the next morning. He planned to stay all night to be there with George until then. George had no family or friends outside the prison.”
“Mac, Old George is a special man. The priest told me that visiting George ministered to him. He was the fourth or fifth priest George had since he had been on The Row. There have been many appeals. Most people believe George is a wrongly accused man, but George has never said one way or the other. I love talking to George. I guess I said that already.”
“The priest, being a properly dressed man, straightened up his collar and coat, combed his hair and was ready to see his old friend. When I opened the cell and saw the look in the eyes of these two men, one from a prison and condemnation the other from a gateway and salvation, I was in awe and full of questions. The look they exchanged said, ‘yes, we understand one another.’ How could it be?”
“George and the priest prayed aloud and quietly for a long time. They talked for what seemed like hours. As the night progressed, Dorcas slept, but not Z-X. Z-X was listening. I could see him with his elbows on his knees, sitting on the edge of his bunk.”
“The priest prayed from the last rights toward the end of my shift and George said the words with him, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me shall never die but shall have life eternal.’ George spoke words to the priest like; peace, forgiveness, comfort, love, no fear of death. George was speaking softly, but the words were clear and I could see a smile and something else on his face. I don’t know how to explain it, Mac, except it was like a glow. I know that sounds crazy, but I saw it!” Mac said, “I believe you, buddy, I believe you. I have heard of strange stuff happening on The Row.”
“Well Mac, you haven’t heard it all yet! Z-X called to me from his cell and said, ‘Hey Dave, man you think that priestwould talk to me?’ I asked Z, as we call him, “Since when do you care about anything but Satan worship? You better think twice if you think I’m gonna let you have a chance to rough up a man of God?”
“Mac, this guy Z is a monster. Just to look at him will make you puke. His entire body is tattooed with snakes, lizards, pentagrams, nasty tongues, images of the devil and fire. He had a ring in every orifice of his body. His knuckles have a code for kid pussy tattooed on them. FBI decoded it. He is one bad ass.”
“As you know, refusing a condemned man access to a priest if they ask is breaking regulations and as far as I’m concerned, ethics, so I asked the priest. I told him as much as I could about Z, told him I would cuff him and chain him. The priest agreed as I knew he would. The priest has been around a while. He is tall, medium build, light hair, mid-fifties, British accent, quite but obviously intelligent and humble. His name is Stu and he is a good listener, much like you, Mac.”
“I told Z the priest was coming in and the rules. I also insisted the priest take in the brick for protection although he thought it unnecessary. I cuffed and chained Z who seemed ashamed and hung his head, opened the cell and Stu, the priest, took a seat on the chair provided across from Z’s bunk.”
“I sat right outside Z’s cell, listened and looked in occasionally. Here is the conversation I heard to the best of my memory:”
Stu says, “Dave tells me your name is Z. May I call you Z or is there another name you prefer?” Z answers, “Z, yeah, that’s it, fine, man. All the brothers call me Z.” Stu goes on, “Z, is there some way I can help you tonight? Dave said you asked to talk to me. People usually do that when they have something on their minds.”
Z struggles and stammers and says, “I ugh, I heard you talking to old George. He’s going out in the morning.” Stu answers, “Yes, he is. Do you know George? Does that upset you or make you sad?” Z thinks a minute and says, “Well, as for me, I think they got the wrong man for that one. If I was old George and was going down for something someone else done, I’d be mad as hell, not all at peace and forgiveness and stuff. I just don’t understand it that’s all.”
Stu thought for a while and then asked, “Z, can you remember the first thing, the very first thing you did you knew was wrong?” Z did not hesitate, “I took $20 from my Mom’s purse to buy a 6 pack. I was twelve years old.”
“Do you remember how you felt about doing that?” the priest asked Z. “It made me feel guilty until I did it again and then again. Pretty soon I didn’t feel guilty about anything I did.” Z said.
“You have said a whole ton of Truth, Z. What happened to George is a lot like what happened when you took the $20 from you Mom’s purse. That is pretty much on the same level of George’s worst crime, but he carried guilt for it for many years. To George, the small crime was a large sin. As in the eyes of God, all sin is the same no matter how big or awful the crime. The forgiveness is the same as well. George has been forgiven for his small crime. You can have the same forgiveness for all-small and large. They are all the same size to God.”
Z sat staring back and forth at the priest and into space as I watched this through the cell bars. Z was like a man transfixed, trying to grasp onto some new concept or idea never before heard of or considered. Stu sat as well, giving Z time to think, to consider, to ask questions.
As I listened Z asked the priest, “Stu, will you pray that last rights prayer. The one about life everlasting?” I saw the two men holding hands across the cell. Stu began, “I am the resurrection and the life…”. After that prayer was done, Stu opened his Bible and said to Z, “These verses are for you. I will make a copy of them for you. “This comes from the Book of Isaiah 6:v 5-7, ‘Woe is me for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. Then one of the seraphim flew to me, with a burning coal in his hand which he had taken from the altar with tongs. And he touched my mouth with it and said, ‘Behold this has touched your lips and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.’
“I saw the two men stand. Stu called to me, ‘Dave, please come and release Z’s handcuffs and chains. We are fine here.’ As I unlocked the cell, and unlocked Z, the two men embraced. The priest took his leave and as he walked off down the hall, he waved at George, telling him he will be back in a couple of hours. The addict, Dorcas spit at him and uttered another obscene laugh.”
“Mac, the last thing I saw tonight was totally amazing! Z and George were talking and laughing from their cells like they had known each other all their lives.”
You learn new things all the time. Currently, I’m in the middle of an extended email discussion with one of the elders at my church about whether the Christian is by nature a sinner who has been saved by grace, by nature a saint who sometimes sins, or by nature both. I’m arguing for the ‘both’ idea, but I can’t come up with a short pithy phrase to express it like, ‘I’m a sinner saved by grace’ or ‘I’m a saint who sometimes sins.’ Somehow saying ‘I am both a saint and a sinner who is saved by grace and sometimes sins because my old nature keeps trying to come back to life’ just doesn’t quite cut it. Anyway, on a different subject entirely, I have a story challenge, and it’s time for my favorite story challenge. I’m going to give you a series of criteria including genre, theme, some character archetypes…
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