The Executioner's Tale

“You just don’t know what it’s like,” Jerry Rivers said. He took another hit off his Marlboro, tapped the ashtray twice, and threw back his shot. “They look at you when the gas hits ‘em, and you know they know they are going to die.”

“Christ on a crutch, do you think so?” This was said by Eddie Fleen, a linen salesman who had never before been to the Grand CafĂ©. His seersucker suit was wilted from the heat.

“ I know so. I been doing this job ten years now, I’ve seen more than my share of death. I get paid by the Commonwealth to do it and I’m good at it. I take them out, they go with no fuss, no freaking out, you know what I mean?” Rivers was a large man, florid of face and dark of voice. When he told his new drinking buddy that he was an executioner by trade, the little guy had bought him a Schlitz and peppered him with questions. Enjoying the attention, he was growing expansive.

“My word. So what are the chemicals used?” Fleen moistened dry lips, looking eager in a way that was not entirely healthy. He pushed his thick glasses up the bridge of his nose.

“Trade secret, sorry to say. Most have names about this long,” here Jerry held his hands a couple of feet apart. “And they sound like a scientist with the sneezes.” Rivers laughed at his own poetic license.

“What’s it like when they die?” Fleen did not smoke, but he twirled a booklet of matches between his fingers with nervous energy.

“”When it is done right, they just slide out of this world and into the next, one minute they are here, next minute they are gone, and it is all about disposal then.”

Bo, a short and stocky man with a bushy black mustache, was the bartender on today and he leaned over the bar as far as his gut would allow, swiping the ashtray and replacing it with another in the same motion. He said through his facial forest, “You guys want another round?”

“Of course,” said Fleen. “On me.” He finished his beer and made way for the next. “Which one was the worst?”

“You sure ask a lot of questions, pal.” Jerry drained his own beer. “I mean, thanks for the beer and all, but you ain’t gettin’ into my pants, if you know what I mean.”

“Oh no, it’s for my book. I’m a writer.” Eddie adjusted his glasses yet again.

The thought of being in a book made River’s pride swell even further. That’s just the kind of guy Jerry was.

“Well, the worst one was back in ’68, summer it was, hot as the Devil’s bathroom, and I was sick.” Jerry crushed out his butt and lit another. “My wife teaches kids and she brings home every damn bug that comes down the Pike, and I end up catching most of them.” He warmed to his story.

“I got the call early, the regular guy had a family emergency, his mother in law fell down the stairs or something like that, I don’t know, but he had to go, and so I was called in. I felt like crap already, but needed the overtime so I dragged my butt in to work. “

“It was a tough one, a multiple.”

“A multiple? How often does that happen?” Fleen leaned forward.

“More often than you’d think” Rivers swigged off his beer. “Sometimes it is just money, cheaper to do ‘em together, you know?”

“My word.”

“Bet your life they save the money when they can my friend. Do they want the full service, with a quick and clean ending? Or do they want things cheap and messy? Guess which one they pick every time.”

Jerry lit another smoke. “Anyway, it was a multiple, which is more complicated, of course, and there is more chance for something to screw up, and then you got chaos, you know? And I’m still feeling like a crap sandwich. I’m standing there, ready to do my job, pull the switch that’s gonna mean that Death gets his due, then, just before I get ready to do my thing, the impossible happened.”

“What was it?” Eddie Fleen swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing twice. “What happened?”

“Escape.” I’m not real sure how it happened, but I was focused on my stuff, and feeling sick, so when it happened I was pretty confused. I lost my chance to fix things, to make it right, and then before I knew what was what, it was complete chaos. I hit the gas. I didn’t mean to, my timing was off, I was startled by the escape, I guess I panicked or something but it happened and I can’t take it back.” River flicked ash, but his eyes lever left Fleen’s.

“I took a lungful. I screwed up and I paid the price, sucked it down by accident and it did me some damage, tell you the truth, but, suddenly, I just lose my lunch all over my uniform. I had messed up bad, poisoned myself, puked myself, and I looked like a goddamn fool.” Anger at his own mistake welled within him. “I had enough stories for tonight, I gotta take a leak.”

He lumbered off the stool and made his way to the back of the bar, where a foul little booth held a tiny commode which listed heavily to starboard.

Bo reappeared, wiping the bar and emptying the ashtray with the same sleight of hand.

“It must be so difficult, dealing with Death on so casual a basis, living with the knowledge that you have taken another man’s life.” He looked toward where Jerry Rivers had gone. “I pity him.”

“Another man’s life?” Bo smiled. “Jerry doesn’t work at the prison.” He picked up a glass and began polishing. “He’s an exterminator.”


This story is in the collection Breathing for Clouds, you can get a copy HERE.

©2010 Christopher Reilley

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