A work in progress. Projected release date Summer / Fall of 2015
“Sign here, here, annnnnnd one more, here,” the guard at the front desk said as he circled one X after another in red, on the forms splayed before me.
“What are these?” I asked, fully aware of what they were.
“Standard procedures,” he answered in the most monotone voice.
How did I know he’d say that?
“Would you like to read them?” the man in the uniform asked.
“That’s quite alright. I’m sure I just signed my life away.”
The guard chuckled twice. “Very well, follow him.” He pointed to another guard standing stiffly at attention next to a door across the room. The guard nodded as if he knew who I am, and what I was there for. As well, they all should, this has been scheduled for months. It took a lot of persistent prodding, but I finally was able to convince the warden to allow this interview.
The guard led the way.
The stained cinder block walls seemed to stretch on forever. The hall twisted and turned like a hospital that kept adding wing after wing. Dirty-yellowed lights, littered with dead flies, hummed above our heads, flickering, casting jagged shadows, dancing down each corridor like lit torch in a vented cave. The once smooth cement floor were now cracked and chipped with age, and crunched underfoot, spraying gravel before us as we shuffled on.
“Watch your step, sir,” my finely dressed escort warned, as we negotiated past a rough area of the floor. I nodded, kicking some stones ahead of me as we walked on.
My nose instantly started to run from the mildewed stench. I sniffled hard, drawing it back into my head, creating the beginning of a bad headache. The musty smell was already wreaking havoc on my sinuses.
We walk by cell after cell, housing enough steel to build a fleet of freighters. Whispers in the dark echo past, yet not an inmate could be seen in their poorly lit tombs. They were brought here to die, the real life death row. This is not the pampered kind we see on television, where they wine and dine them in their air conditioned cells with cable TV. There is no choice of last meal, and no press conferences before walking down the lonely green mile.
There is no executioner here. No capital punishment allowed, not here, not in this state. Here, the prisoners truly live out their life sentences, life, with no chance of parole, some never seeing the light of day again. These are the best of the worst that had ever lived. Now, stripped of all luxuries and most dignities, they have nothing else to do but wait their day to die.
“Open cell block 6457,” the escort barked into an intercom in a robotic voice. Loud clinks, then clanks echoed down the corridors as metal tumbled against hard metal releasing reinforced locks. The noise was quickly replaced with steel rubbing against steel, scraping, shrieking, and crying out for oil. We walked through yet another gate; I think it was our seventh.
Our footsteps now echoed before us as our shoes and boots splashed their way across the wet floors. The frozen pipes above leaked from the lack of proper heating in the winter months, by the looks of things, some time ago. They’ve been leaking awhile. A strong whiff of urine entered my nostrils. I couldn’t help but wonder something, something that I really didn’t want to know.
Moans and cries for assistance bend their way around corners in the distance, or maybe nearby, it was too hard to tell. Voices bounced off the walls like basketballs in a gymnasium, echoing every which-way.
“I need a doctor, a doctor, please!” an inmate cried out in pain. His plea went ignored as we pushed on. Taxpayers’ dollars are safe here.
“We almost there?” I ask.
“A little further.” We round yet another bend. “Just up ahead.”
I look forward and see, and smell, more of the same. Rivers of unknown liquid flow beneath our feet dumping into trenches chiseled in the floors, against the walls. The prison walls were dark with stain. Peeled paint hung from the ceilings, draping over the wet pipes above our heads. Water dripped from some, steam hissed from others, filling the corridor with mist and echoes of splashing water, like a small waterfall splashing against the rocks below. It was the only soothing sound one could maintain in this dreaded place, but would require a vivid imagination to do so.
To my right, blackish green sewage seeped from four-inch pipes above. It hung there like algae out of the armpits of a swamp-monster. The adjacent walls were blackened with mold, a health department’s nightmare. Obviously, one of the privileges stripped away due to budget cuts. Why waste money on the presumed dead? Very few people knew that they were even here.
“We’re here,” the guard grunted.
“Here,” I paused. “Where for Gods sake is here?” I asked.
“Your prisoner awaits.”
I looked around. There’s no bars to be seen, just a lonely steel door at the end of the corridor.
“In there?” I nod towards the door.
The guard nodded back. “He’s in solitary confinement.”
“He must have been a bad boy,” the guard stated with a touch of sarcasm.
“Should I come back at another time?” I inquire.
“If you want your interview, I suggest you do it now. The warden has been known to change his mind. I’m really surprised he allowed it at all.”
“What did he do?” I asked again.
The question again went unanswered. He unlocked and swung the door open. It, too, was in desperate need of oil. The screeching sound it made was worse than nails on a chalkboard. I cringed. The guard nodded to go in.
“You’re coming in with me, aren’t you?” I asked.
“Afraid not.” He chuckled. “He’s chained. Don’t get too close.”
The door slammed behind me. Echoing down the hallway. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the light, but when they did, I saw a figure slumped over a table, silhouetted by a harsh backlight.
I step out of the shadows. “Hello?” I said unsurely. I got no reply and tried again. “Hello, I’m...”
“I know who you are,” the man interrupted and lifted his head from the table. “I’ve been expecting you. Sit.” He said in a firm voice. “I haven’t had company in—well let’s just say, the last company I had didn’t stay long enough to consider it a visit. Sit down!”
“If it’s alright with you, I prefer to stand over here.”
“Sit down!” He demanded pointing to a metal folding chair across from him. “Sit down or no interview.”
I said nothing. I just stared at the chair, calculating in my mind how close it was to him. All my calculated guesses came up with the same conclusions, “too close.” From where I stood, I couldn’t see the chains the guard had mentioned.
“I’m not going to hurt you, just sit the fuck down, will yah?”
“Well, all right then.” I shuffled my feet closer. In the meantime my eyes had adjusted to the light and I now could clearly see shackles on his wrists and ankles. I pull the chair back from the table and sat down. The cold from the metal chair penetrated my pants, giving me a chill up my spine.
I pulled a notepad from my coat pocket, along with a couple of pencils, and I laid them on the table. A picture of a pencil sticking out of my eye socket flashed before my mind and I quickly put one of them back. I pushed a bottle of water closer to the prisoner with the end of my notebook, and I took a long swig from my own. My mouth was dry.
“Thank you,” he said as he pushed it aside with the back of his hand.
Great, at least he’s polite, I thought. “Ah, your welcome.”
“Me, no, no, no I’m fine.” Why did I just stutter, you idiot. “Okay, yes, mmm-maybe a little.”
“Good,” he replied.
“Good? Why good?”
“I haven’t lost my touch.”
“Can we get on with this?” I asked.
“You’re the boss.”
“Robert? Robert Cleaver?”
“Are you asking? You’re at the right place, my friend. Call me Bob,” he replied in a disturbingly calm voice.
He called me friend, but I’m not. I’m not his friend. He’s a killer. I don’t befriend murderers. Why would he call me friend, anyway? He doesn’t even know me. He’s trying to get in my head. He’s trying to—trick me. He’s trying to get me comfortable then he’ll let me have it. He’ll catch me when my guards down, just like he did with the Higgins’. POW! My mind is getting the best of me. I have to stop. I take another long pull of water.
I’m here to tell you that my guard never came down that day. I sat at the edge of my seat the entire interview, which went on for what seemed hours. Certainly a lot longer than planned. Eight months into planning this interview, and not a single thing has gone right. Here I was, locked inside a cell with him, alone. I didn’t expect that at all. And, I didn’t expect him to be so damn polite, and open. He went on and on about the killings and not just the Higgins’. There were plenty others. Most of which he was never charged.
I learned more about prisoner #166645 than I ever wanted to. The man disgusted me on so many levels. He confessed things to me that made my throat burn with bile.
The guard stopped in, a couple of times, to check in on me. He would slide the steel shield away from the window, exposing steel bars hiding in the shadows. He slid more bottled water through the food slot below and left it without coming in. I could still hear him chuckle each time he walked away.
The water was a welcomed sight. My mouth was dryer than toast and tasted like rotten eggs. I opened the bottle and quickly washed the bile back. Bob, on the other hand, hardly drank from his first.
Robert told me his story, at times in great gory detail, when he felt the need. I took a lot of notes and asked very few questions, he volunteered the rest. He volunteered so much, that, at times, it felt as if it were a confession, but I’m no priest, and he never did ask for forgiveness. Even today, I wonder why he told so much.
I left Bob’s cell that evening feeling lucky, lucky to be alive. If they sold lottery tickets in the prison store I swear I would have bought some before leaving. And, even though Bob was a perfect host there still was something about him that made my skin crawl.
In my unsolicited opinion, the man got off way too easy for the crimes that he had committed. He deserved much worse than the sentence that he was given. But, with that said, before walking out of his cell I still had to thank the man. Without him, I could not share this story with you, a story that I felt must be told.
“Bob also thanked me before I left his cell that day,
simply for ‘bending an EAR,’ and listening to what he had to say.
He said he would love to have them for his collection one day."
Well, that was 30 years ago. I was just a young, scrawny, journalist fresh out of high school, looking for a story to make my mark. Instead, the story left such a mark on me that I couldn’t write it, until now. I wrote it as it was told to me, in great gory detail at times, where I found it necessary.
I hope you enjoy the story…
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