“Who are those people?” I asked Roper, grinning. My breath curled in the air through the open arrow slit window to mix with the smoke streaming from my cigarette.
The old man, a moonshiner in his past life, picked his head up, red-faced after a choking cough that left him breathless and panting. “Eh? They who?”
“The people gathered on the railroad tracks.” I watched as they unfurled a banner. “Look!” I waved him over, but Roper was having none of it. He and physical activity did not get along.
He made a shooing gesture. “Some church people wishing us a merry Christmas, I reckon. You feel merry, Yank?” His bearded cheek twitched into something of a smile. Humor, however dark, was all we had.
“No.” We were barely two weeks removed from back-to-back executions and though I wasn’t totally green, they still left an oily emptiness in the pit of my stomach, as something disgusting had been digested and there lingered an unclean film on everything. The kind of feeling that never goes away. I saw the bright red and green lettering on the banner and wondered if they could ever understand. There was nothing fancy or artistic about the sign, it was just big enough to be seen from the railroad tracks several hundred feet from the section of the prison where death row eked out its existence. “How do we know it’s for us?”
“Can you see it?”
“Then what’s it matter who it’s for?” He lit another cigarette and looked at me. I looked away as my eyes misted, suddenly homesick.
The banner seemed like a nice gesture, but it reminded me of the dozen or so protestors who stood under glowing street lights across from Central Prison whenever one of us was put to death. Utterly useless however good it made them feel, like throwing money in a well instead of saving it up for something worthwhile. “Are those the same people who stand vigil at executions?”
The old man inhaled cigarette smoke and let it roll out of his nose. “Some. Others are friends and family of the condemned. A bunch of them come from that church group.”
“People of Faith Against the Death Penalty?”
“That’s the one.”
I watched the banner people in their winter coats and hats, jumping and laughing. It wasn’t quite freezing, but the wind made the air feel raw. Even through the haze of a morphine pill the old man gave me I appreciated the effort it took to leave the comfort of their homes on Christmas day to wish us a merry Christmas.
The old man grabbed his cane and grunted to his feet, shuffling to the window. “They still there?” I stepped out of the way. Roper looked and smoked. Looked and smoked. He shuffled back to the bunk and slumped on it with a sigh. “Well.” We looked at one another and he raised bushy white eyebrows. “Merry Christmas, Yankee.”