Winner Energheia Israel Award 2018
“Jim you can’t say bitch” I interrupted, “we talked about it”.
“She was a bitch” Jim insisted, yelling from over the bars. “How about cunt? I could settle for cunt”.
“You can’t say any bad words in the sermon, you know that” I said in a confident voice.
“It’s my last word. Even my last words won’t be mine?”
“Let’s continue” I said.
“Mom, Dad, please forgive me, and remember I’m going to a better place. Troy, Tony, Josh, Michael, I love you guys, you were always there for me. You are the best friends anyone can wish for.”
“Alright Jim” I said “you have fifty-seven words so far. So that means you have ninety-three left.”
Jim thought for a little while and then blurted “add at the end There, Go Cougars!”
“Ok, anything else?” I asked trying not to sound condescending. “A lot of people write names celebrities friend or family they want to thank, to let them know they think about them in their last moments. Some just add a positive message, do you have any wisdom to share? it’s your fifteen minutes.”
“I don’t think so” Jim murmured while looking up to the high window on the wall.
“I can offer you this” I said while reaching into my bag. I pulled a little red book. It was worn out and the color on the cover was faded. On it, it said, in big bold white letters “HAPPY QUOTES”. “Here” I handed him the book from over the bars “you can look for a nice quote for your sermon”
Jim looked surprised, I think he hadn’t held a book for a while.
“Can you read?” I asked, as straight forward as I could.
“Yeah, sure” he answered. He didn’t seem offended by the question. He started reading, turned some pages with a confused look and said without lifting his head “I don’t think I’ll need it. The only wisdom I have to share is how to make a big-nice-batch-of…”
“Ok, I get it” I interrupted. Jim started laughing.
I cleared my throat as a gesture of summing the meeting. “I’ll see you again tomorrow at two pm, if you
want to change or add anything tell the guard. I know they don’t give a pencil or a pen so if you have a
sudden stroke of wisdom just tell the guard and he will write it down for you.”
I didn’t wait for an answer and left. I always feel sick after an editing session, but the feeling just disappears as I exit the execution house.
Later that evening I had a first date with Lisa, a friend of mine set it up. I got to the restaurant early so I reviewed another sermon of a guy from Ohio who killed his girlfriend and her lover after he caught her cheating. The guy decapitated her head and shot the poor bustard in the nuts.
Those stories don’t get to me anymore, I see through them. You know what’s left after the horror, a broken person who can’t build a complex sentence. I sit there correct their spelling drowning in grammar mistakes. They think I’m a genius. Every time I bring them a first draft of what they wrote and the sentences are clear, and they sound like eloquent adults their eyes lit up. But I guess everything is possible when you finish high school.
“Hey! Lisa? Nice to meet you. Sit down, please”.
“Have you waited long?” She asked with a little tremor in her voice.
“No, just catching up with work” I rapidly closed my computer. She sat down and asked “What do you do? If you don’t mind me asking?”
“I’m an execution editor”. She had an uncertain look. “Every Thursday they execute, right? I edit the sermons”
“The last words announcement? That’s you?”
“Sermons” I corrected, “that’s me!”
“Oh wow”, she had a smile on her face, she seemed intrigued, “tell me more”.
“There’s not much to tell” I hurried to apologize, “each person gets a sermon before they are executed.
A sermon contains a hundred and fifty words, not including “i” “an” and “a”. Of course, you can’t say any
profanities. As you know the sermon is announced right before the execution in the speakers. The thing
is that most of the people who get to death row are drug addicts who barely finished middle school so I help them write their sermon. Because you get only a hundred and fifty words you have to be precise. I help with abbreviations and grammar so they’ll have an extra sentence or two”.
We continued talking some more.
She told me about her job at the medical center downtown where she worked as a nurse.
Work was on my mind that evening. I walked her back to her car and as she drove away, and her car got smaller and smaller, the sermons floated back to my head.
I walked home.
The next morning, I was late to my meeting. As I was entering the EH (Execution House) parking lot I saw Myron my boss, standing there his face all red, looking anxious. He rushed me out of the car, closed the door behind me and said, “they’re already here”.
“Shit, sorry. I walked home last night after the date and left my car at the restaurant”
“A romantic walk beneath the moon before the action ha?” he said, barely holding his breath as we climbed the stairs, and with a wicked look he poked me with his elbow.
We entered a big conference hall with an oval wooden table at the center. Three men sat at the far end of the table, I only knew one of them, Mr. Franklin the EH warden. We sat down and Mr. Franklin spoke:” thank you for coming, this is Mr. Smith” he pointed to his left at the skinny pale white man sitting next to him “representative of the justice department. and to my right, Mr. Dunbar.” Mr. Dunbar stood up, did a little bow and murmured “gentleman”.
It all seemed a little too formal. Mr. Franklin continued “Myron, as you know we’re privatizing the EH so you will no longer work in the Justice Department.” He didn’t look at me while he talked “you’ll work for
the EH directly, and the Justice Department will oversee its activity. Mr. Dunbar here, is the CEO of Dunbar Investments and would like to introduce you to an idea, please Mr. Dunbar”.
“Since we’re all very busy I’ll get straight to the point. There is a fresh look of things, and since the EH got privatized we got offers from some of the largest corporations on the planet to advertise during the sermon”.
I couldn’t speak, I was shocked. “Say it again” I said without blinking. Mr. Dunbar shot a worried look at me and continued “Look fellas, it’s a free market, if Tiromax or H6 want to buy a little part of the sermon they can try. Think about it. I talked to Blake Redding from H6 and he told me they are willing to pay up to a quarter of a million for one sentence in the sermon. It’s a quarter of a million those people can leave to their kids and family”.
“I need a glass of water” I said as I left the room. Myron rushed after me. “Are you okay George?”
“Do you think I’m okay?! Did you hear what they’re saying in there? They are talking about taking the last shred of humanity left in this fucked up world and commercializing it for a lousy buck.”
“Listen, you know better than anyone, most of the sermon are crap. Half of them say goodbye to random people no one knows, and the other half is taken from your goddam red book”.
“Don’t you see Myron, it’s beyond the words and meaning. It’s about giving a man thirty seconds of humanity, of making amends, before he’s gone for good. It’s disgraceful.”
The rest of the meeting I sat there stamping my foot rapidly while Mr. Dunbar explained the financial plan and the profit margins of it all. After he finished talking, everybody shook hands and left the room. I approached Mr. Dunbar. “Can we speak?”
“Sure, George is it?”
He sat down and stared at me for a little while with a slight grim on his face. That condescending prick. “Look George I know who you are, and I have a lot of respect for you. I represent Big money. The amount that people dream about. Let me be frank. I would like to put you on retainer”. I was nervous, I
kept arranging and rearranging my tie knot.
“Can you grasp the power you have in your hands? Those people listen to you. And for a minute every
Thursday the whole world listens to them.
What did you think? That the Department got privatized out of the blue? Huge financial Power made it happen, the kind that moves the world around, the godlike kind. Those people are nothing, they came from nothing and go nowhere. From ash to ash, I would like to give them peace”.
The next day I went to see Jim again.
“Hey Jim, how are you?”
“I’m fine I’m fine, listen my momma was here earlier and told me that a man came to her house”
I knew what he was going to say before he even said it. “He works for Fisher Cola. He offered her ten thousand for me to say something in my sermon”. I just stood there stewing in anger. I knew there was nothing I could say to persuade him not to take the money. He wouldn’t have understood the consequences of making this decision. Jim saw only the money, all his life he only saw only the money, that’s why he is where he is. Still, I wanted to shout, to scream at the top of my lungs at this poor man. I just needed to take a load off my mind – a sleepless night will do that to a man.
I took a deep breath and slowly tightened my grip on the metal bar in front of me. “Listen Jim”, I said slowly, “you have no idea what you are about to do. It’s more than money, it’s about your soul. I know it’s hard to say no to that amount of cash but I beg you to think it through, listen to what I have to say”. We talked. We talked for hours. We talked until I had nothing left to say, until the room got quiet and I left.
While I walked through the concrete halls I reviewed in my mind our one-sided conversation. He barley spoke, I did most of the talking, yelling. At this job you have to adjust your lingo to the person in front of you. You can’t talk the same way I talk to my boss as I talk to a serial killer from Alabama.
At that point, I couldn’t hold it any more. I’m not sure he understood half of what I said to him.
I felt sick as I was leaving his holding cell. This time it didn’t leave me as I left the execution house.
“How is work?” Lisa asked from the next room.
“A bit stressful right now” I yelled over the sound of me chopping onion in the kitchen.
“They are privatizing the Department. And we had a meeting with an investor. Some corporations want to insert ads in the sermon. Can you believe it?”
“What do you mean insert ads?
“I mean they want to pay a hundred thousand to some poor fella to say in his last words to buy some cherry flavored energy drink”.
“That doesn’t sound so bad” Lisa said in a low voice, as if she knew it would make me mad. I stopped chopping and rushed to the living room where she was sitting on the couch.” Are you serious?”
I asked annoyed.
“Why are you getting so worked up over this? Those people made their own bed, now they have to lay in it. Why is it so wrong? It sounds like a very nice way out.”
“You haven’t met those people, you wouldn’t understand. Most of them are basically statistics. Where they grew up, their neighborhood, their parents, their whole life led to that point”
I don’t buy it George. They had a choice.”
“Why can we feel empathy for an animal locked in cage and not to a person? They did something wrong? sure, and some of them do deserve to be locked up. But some are the outcome of their environment. Just like an animal born in captivity”.
“I disagree George. You talk about empathy as if there was something beyond the crime and violence, but it’s a choice. The animal isn’t locked up for the same reason people are. After the dust settles and the deed is done, someone is standing with blood on their hands. That’s all that’s left.”
It was the day before Jim’s execution.
“Good morning Jim. How are you?” I tried to sound empathetic as I could.
Nervous, its tomorrow you know”
“Yeah I do. Have you given any thought to what we have discussed?”
“You know I have a little kid, right? She is young, too young to remember me. And that money gives me a chance to erase my mistakes. At least for her. She’d grow knowing I’m her dad, who left her money so she could go to college and not her dad, the death row inmate.”
“I understand Jim” as I finished the sentence a tall sturdy man entered the room, he was breathing fast as if he ran. “Sorry I’m late” he said.
“Jim this is Mr. Stone. He’s here on behalf of the Tiromax Corporation. I know Fisher Cola offered your mother ten thousand for an ad in your sermon and Mr. Stone here is willing to offer you as much as a hundred thousand for it.” The room went silent. Finally, Mr. Stone spoke “are you willing to take the offer Mr. Cornwall?”
Jim nodded without saying anything. He looked at me and reached his hand between the bars. I grabbed his hand and shook it. I smiled.
“I can die happy”.
Thursday afternoon arrived. l has a routine, I go to a little coffee place near my house and sit there trying not to think of Jim or Adam or Valery, and of their last words. I always hope I’d be surprised, as if at the last second they asked the guard to change the sermon. A loud static noise suddenly broke and all of the life sounds I was surrounded by faded. Everyone stood still in silence. A robotic voice said “the sermon of Jim Cornwall, is about to start, please be respectful and wait until the sermon is over. Thank you” the sound echoed until it disappeared into the horizon. Nobody spoke.
“Janet Spencer, I love you! I did it all for you. I would do it all over again if I could. She deserved to die for what she did to you Janet. Mom dad, please forgive me, and remember I’m going to a better place. Troy, Tony, Josh, Michael, I love you guys, you were always there for me. You are the best friends anyone can wish for. Buy the new Rubber Deluxe- tire-made-from-steel.