Life on death row: Reflections of the universe from the funhouse-mirrored dungeons of the blind.

Process
The truth is the truth not because it is factual but because it is universal. The mere facts of this incident or that one — always up for quibble — are little wisps of nothing, to be eroded away in half-an-age by the breezes alone. But the universe endures, and it works the way it works, and so the truths that matter are really just ornate reflections of the universe itself.Thomas Hawk / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story

June 6, 2013
I’m a glazier of sorts, I have always thought so, but I specialize in mirrors…

This is a story about the best friend I have on death row. The implication is that I have more than one friend on death row. This is true, and we’ll get around to the other story sooner or later. I conceal nothing, I promise, but I reveal what I choose, when and how I choose.

My friend’s name is Anthony Ford — Tony for short — though I’m sure you’ve never heard of him. Execution cases are big news when they advance an ugly political agenda, not otherwise. The prisons are full of innocent men, as any one of them will tell you, but there are facts that can trump anyone’s guilt or innocence: When the modern-day equivalent of the executioner’s axe drops, an innocence subsequently proved, a blameless man vindicated, is a consolation to no one.

So is Tony Ford an innocent man falsely convicted, someday to be unjustly deprived of his life? I don’t know. Neither do you. And neither does anyone else — maybe not even the man himself. We are each of us reflections of what we have been before — many, many times before. But we are reflections, too, of what we would have been, what we could have been, what we wanted to be and should have been, if only the world turned the other way.

*     *     *

“We get TV, as long as it’s crap.” Tony said that. He was in town for a hearing on one of his many jailhouse-lawyer appellate actions and we had a chance to get together in a grimy little interrogation room in the vast Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office complex in the no-man’s-land south of Durango Road in South Phoenix.

I had applied for this appointment weeks in advance, but, even so, the Sheriff’s functionaries had found it necessary to keep me waiting for a couple of hours on a hard plastic chair in a room full of wall-sized mirrors. There was a counter with a thick plexiglas barrier, like the People’s Bank of Moscow, and behind it stood fat, stolid cows, who, for some reason, can emit their copious flatulence only through their mouths.

And the mirrors were horrifying to me after a while. I realized that those people behind the counter couldn’t see them any longer. Meaning is an attribute of mind: I focus on what is important to me. But the brain — the vehicle — will subtract what the mind — the driver — routinely omits, and so I knew that, by now, those people can’t see anything at all in those mirrors — not the room, not the braying supplicants on the other side of the glass, not even themselves.

“Earlier there was a so-called sexual submissive on this silly talk show. Did you ever stop to put a value on the testimony of a sexual submissive?”

I smiled at that. Wouldn’t you? “As it happens, I never have.”

“Isn’t the premise that anything she says, she’s been ordered to say by her so-called master?”

“‘Premise’ is a nice choice of words. Yes, that’s the set-up.”

“So that’s like a double-flummox, right? She may be a real submissive, in which case her testimony is deceptive. Or else she’s a fake and her testimony is an outright lie. And you can’t know which is which, can you? All you can know is that you’re being lied to.”

I nodded. I worry at knots like that all the time.

He held out his hands, shoulder height, palms up. “So what’s a corporate spokesman? What’s a politician? What’s a judge when you get up under his robe? Could he have a drug problem no one knows about? Maybe a little secret sweetheart on the side? Is what he says what he really means, or is there some puppet master behind the scenes, pulling his strings? How would you know if there is? How would you know if there isn’t?”

“I think you may have just rejected all of human testimony.”

He smiled at me, a long, slow, deeply-satisfied smile, almost smug. “It wasn’t today I did that.” He cackled. He’s not an old man, but it was an old man’s cackle.

*     *     *

I first met him twelve summers ago. I was living in this sketchy little utilities-included studio apartment in East Phoenix, north of the airport. Tony’s sister lived next door to me, and I bought an antique Toyota Tercel from her — stick shift, manual brakes and steering — because she was broke and pathetic and I felt sorry for her. Internet poker was new and I was knocking down bank — a lot of money for me, anyway — and I was happy to be able to help her, even if under camouflage.

Tony was out of prison for the first time in his life, released on appeal, pending a trial court review, by the one judge who ever let him talk in court without interrupting. He was living in an abandoned car because no one would rent to him, and he would come by his sister’s place late in the day to swim in the murky little community pool and use her shower.

I got to know him when he insisted on repairing his sister’s car after I bought it. The one upgrade that car had was air conditioning, but it was long since broken. Tony fixed and recharged it on his own dime, and never has anyone done a nicer thing for me. It wasn’t even a great air conditioner; cars built for Des Moines don’t do well in Phoenix. But when the temperature is contemplating whether it should saunter along to 111 degrees or make the leap up to 115, the difference between inadequate air conditioning and no air conditioning is everything.

I went to the landlord on his behalf: Tony’s a good guy, I like him, his sister’s here, a life of tough breaks, blah, blah, blah. Can you help a guy out? Can you put a roof over his head? What Tony didn’t know at the time is that I essentially co-signed for him: I agreed to cover any late payments or damages. I didn’t say so out loud, but it was a bad bet for the landlord even so: If you knowingly rent to a violent criminal, you incur liability for any ensuing crimes that might have been avoided, had you refused. This is why ex-cons live in cars and by-the-week motels.

And Tony’s crime of violence was the very most violent kind: Murder.

He didn’t hide that fact from me. He came right out and told me, before I had shaken his hand, and that’s one of the things I admire about him. But it was completely impossible to believe, anyway. Tony Ford is not a soft man, but it would be easy for you draw that erroneous conclusion. He is quiet and shy and kindly and sweetly gracious in everything he does. I have never seen him so much as cross, much less angry, and the kind of homicidal rage he talks about in his past — it’s hard to see where that could have come from.

But the State of Arizona has spent thirty years looking for a murderer in Tony Ford’s skin, so it wasn’t long before another judge decided to reinstate his death sentence, subject to further appeals. But if avoiding execution were a path to immortality, Tony just might live forever. I’ll take the overs on him dying in bed, not the executioner’s chambers, in any case.

His is the story of two lies, two funhouse-mirror reflections of his life, two deliberate distortions of the truth that have robbed him of his days and may yet cost him his life. Is he without human guilt? None of us is. Is he without human merit? None of us is. Does he deserve the punishment he’s getting? Probably not. Does he deserve to suffer as he is suffering? You don’t get to decide that, nor do I, nor does anyone.

*     *     *

“So that’s where you find me,” he said to me in that smelly little room the Sheriff’s minions had deigned to lend us. “Buried alive at the crossroads of two cloying lies, one a raucous tragedy, the other a brutal farce.”

“How about we leave the poetry to me?” I said with a smile.

“Here’s what’s funny: I’ve actually killed two people in my life. When I was nine, I was home alone and a burglar broke into our house. He had a gun, but I was full of shit and television, so I threw a book at his head. He ducked and somehow he dropped his gun. I picked it up and shot him. He died before the cops could get there, and I just stood there and watched.”

He pulled his lips into a tight little smile. “What a hero I was! Newspaper news and TV news and an example for children everywhere. You know what’s worse than being smeared and slimed and slandered? Being flattered. In both cases, you’re caught in a bonfire of lies, but vanity will coax you to fan and fuel the flames. You’ll set yourself on fire and dance a jig, just to keep people kissing your ass.

“So there I am, Mister Good Example, but I knew it was all a lie. If a grown-up had done what I’d done, it would be handshakes all around and free beer for a week and that’s it. But since I was a kid, it never stopped. But it had nothing to do with me — or with anything, really. I was just the illustrative stuffed animal to be deployed at the cathartic moment in a morality play written long before — a tightly-scripted hand-puppet in a dumbshow that would find me very easy to replace.

“If I had had any brains — or any balls — I would have stepped up and said, ‘What the hell is this? I did what I did, thank the lord, but I have no idea why things worked out as well as they did. It could be if you ran the test again, I’d screw the whole thing up. But if you want to know what I’m proudest of, from that night, I’m proudest that I didn’t wet my pants.’

“But I didn’t say that. And I didn’t say that I wet the bed, off and on, for two years after that night, and I didn’t say anything about the nightmares I have, still, too often, to this very day. I didn’t say much of anything, but I never once turned away from a pat on the back. Stealing is taking things you didn’t earn, but accepting undeserved gifts can be a kind of theft, too. I was a lucky kid, but I was nobody’s hero…

“Except I was, too, in a certain way: In the way that people looked at me, and in the way I saw myself. They set me apart for their benefit, not mine, but they still set me apart. If they say I’m somehow better for doing the right thing at the right moment or if they say I’m twisted and wrong for doing what they might not have been able to do — does it really make any difference? When you’re nine or ten or fifteen and all you want to do is fit in, it doesn’t matter if the sign on your back says ‘kick me’ or ‘kiss me.’ Everybody says it reads ‘Superman’ but the words they really see are ‘Danger! Keep out!’

“Poor, pitiful me, right? Everyone swears they love him, but no one even tries to like him. Boo hoo… For a man who seems to crave bullshit stories so much, you are living on the wrong side of these walls.” He laughed and I laughed with him.

“So you killed again when you were fifteen?”

“Sixteen. Almost seventeen. From my bedroom window, I saw the neighbor beating the shit out of his kid. I took a ball bat and skinnied out my window and into theirs and put a stop to it. The little kid almost died, even then, so I know I saved his life.”

“And the father?”

He smirked, and you might like to imagine that it was a chilling thing, the smirk of a cold-blooded killer, but it wasn’t. It was just the smile that comes with the acceptance of the inevitable. “He didn’t make it.”

“…The death penalty?”

He smiled, a belly-laugh’s worth of self-mockery in the concentrated form. “I may have killed him a little better than absolutely necessary… Reporters won awards for their coverage of the gore, and the neighbors were glad to share how we’d had words in the past, and a grandstanding prosecutor dug up all those old news stories and ran with them — not a young hero but a monster-in-the-making. It made for riveting television.”

He stood and stretched and tried to pace, but there was no room to move in that tiny space, and what little there was was taken up by a beat-up table and two cheap chairs. “The thing is, maybe they weren’t all wrong. I hated that guy, I hated him long before that day. He was always shitting on someone, and his kids were always getting the worst of it. I wanted him dead a long time before I took his life.

“So you tell me — was I stopping a crime in process? Was I rescuing a kid from certain death? Or was I crushing a cockroach for spite…?”

He said nothing for a long time, and I never, ever interrupt at moments like this. “Was I Mister Good Example, Mister Junior Avenger of Righteousness? Was I expressing the allegedly-good kind of completely-berzerk violence, the kind of savage sadism we salute with medals in cops and soldiers? Was I a ‘good shepherd,’ as it’s called, stomping on a rattlesnake’s head, making the world safer for everyone? Or was I simply crushing a man’s skull because I did not want for him to be alive not even one second longer…?”

He looked at me, and I know it mattered to him that I understood him, or that he thought I did at least. I know it matters to him that I’m his friend. “You say the words ‘fault’ and ‘guilt’ and you think you know what they mean. But your fault is yours when you take it up, no matter what anyone else says. Your guilt is yours to bear regardless of what a judge might rule — but you don’t have to take up any extra guilt he might want to throw on you.”

He shrugged. “Am I an innocent man, wrongly accused, wrongly tried, wrongly convicted, wrongly imprisoned, wrongly sentenced to die? Do I belong in prison or not? Did I kill two men because I am a killer, or just because I got unlucky twice? Could I have done anything any differently — and would I be less culpable if I had?

“Sometimes I just want to scream at people — not anyone but everyone. It is here, but for the wheel of fortune, that you should be instead. You push me away from you — put me behind bars — vow to kill me — not because I am so very different from you but because I am your mirror’s reflection, and you don’t like what you see…”

*     *     *

I am a glazier, and I specialize in mirrors.

I like Tony’s story. I don’t know if it’s true in the sense of an attested correspondence to a host of real-world particulars — a two-sides-to-every-story kind of faked impartiality — but I know it is universally true — true for each one of us, no matter how much we might deny it.

The truth is the truth not because it is factual but because it is universal. The mere facts of this incident or that one — always up for quibble — are little wisps of nothing, to be eroded away in half-an-age by the breezes alone. But the universe endures, and it works the way it works, and so the truths that matter are really just ornate reflections of the universe itself.

You say you want to see a perfectly faithful reflection of reality, but, ultimately, there cannot be any such thing. Reflected light is light, not the stuff it bounces off of, and what is being reflected, in anyone’s testimony, is not even the light itself but that person’s unique evaluation of that light — and the spin he puts on it. What he saw is what he was looking for, and what he shares in his testimony is what he hopes he can induce me to see.

People tell me stories. The universe tells me if they’re true…

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