A visit to an execution chamber upsets Barnes, the protagonist so much so that he takes a walk in the middle of the night and comes face-to-face with the arsonist who has been setting fire to all the old buildings in the neighborhood. TR Healey, the storyteller, spins an intriguing yarn.
“Please, ladies and gentlemen, step right in,” the burly corrections officer said, standing at the entrance to the execution chamber.
Barnes, who was among the visitors, followed his cousin, Evelyn, into the stark little room which was so bright he had to shut his eyes for a moment.
A clean white sheet covered the gurney in the center of the room on which the condemned inmate would lie, restrained by the thick leather straps that hung from either side of the gurney. Beside it was an IV stand from which the lethal injection would be administered. In a corner of the chamber stood a fire extinguisher covered in dust and above it a battery-operated clock that no longer operated. A reddish-brown curtain covered the large window through which witnesses were able to view the proceeding.
“Capital punishment is still the law in this state,” the officer reminded them, “but an execution has not been carried out in more than twenty-five years as one governor after another has imposed a moratorium on them because they regard them as immoral.”
He paused, surveying the dozen visitors gathered in the chamber.
“It's unlikely this place will ever be used again for what it was designed for but until capital punishment is declared illegal, we are required to maintain it as best we can.”
As soon as he returned to his apartment from the maximum-security prison, Barnes went straight into his bedroom and looked at his bed which was not much wider than the gurney in the execution chamber. For a split second, he could almost picture straps hanging from its sides, then he left the room and went into the kitchen and cracked open a can of beer.
His cousin was a court reporter and along with a couple of other reporters at the district courthouse, was invited by one of the judges to accompany him to the chamber which the jurist had never seen in person. If they wished, they could bring along one guest, so she invited Barnes. Instantly he accepted, sure it would be an interesting experience, and it was, but now he wished he had declined her invitation.
It was very unsettling, and he was worried he would have bad dreams about the chamber. To his surprise, it appeared as plain and spare and clinical as a doctor's office which somehow made it all the more disturbing. Clearly, awful things can occur in the most ordinary places.
As a letter carrier, Barnes was used to walking considerable distances five days a week, sometimes six, but he didn't feel like walking even a block tonight. He didn't know why but he was worn out from his visit that afternoon to the state prison. All he wanted to do was go to sleep but it was his turn to go on patrol that evening. Over the past two months some buildings had been set on fire in the neighborhood, a couple of vacant houses for sale and a nursery, so a few people volunteered to patrol the area for an hour or two in the evening. Soon others joined them, including Barnes, and they took turns searching for the arsonist.
Tonight, he was paired with Janis whose apartment was down the hall from his, and promptly at eight o'clock they set out to patrol the neighborhood. She was a talker, which he often found wearing, but he was not in the mood to talk much after his visit to the execution chamber so he was pleased she was his partner.
“I've got a new recipe for chicken curry soup I think you might enjoy,” she informed him as they walked out of the apartment house.
Among some of the tenants she was known as the ‘soup lady’ because she occasionally left bowls of homemade soup outside their doors.
“I intend to make a pot of it this weekend, so I'll drop some off for you.”
“I'm sure it'll be as tasty as all the other soups you've made.”
She smiled. “With the exception of that lentil soup I made last Christmas.”
“It was a little strong, as I recall.”
“It tasted like coffee grounds I have to admit.”
For pretty much the entire patrol Janis, who at one time worked at the nursery that was torched last month, talked about some of the different dishes she planned to prepare in the coming weeks. And for once he listened intently so he didn't have to think about what he had seen earlier today.
He awoke with a start and looked at the clock on the nightstand. It was a quarter to three in the morning. Squinting, he looked then for the gurney he swore was next to the chest of drawers, but it wasn't there, and he realized he must have been dreaming about his visit to the execution chamber.
“Damn,” he groaned.
His pajamas were soaked with so much sweat that his nostrils were overcome by a nauseating cheesy smell. At once, he got out of bed, took off his pajamas, and stepped into the shower. He was there almost eight minutes, scrubbing a bar of Irish Spring over and over his body until there was not a trace of that awful smell. Because he was wide awake now, he pulled on the clothes he wore earlier on patrol with Janis and went out for a walk.
Heading north, almost without realizing it, he followed the route he took with Janis. He walked past the modern log cabin house on the corner, crossed the street against the traffic light, and passed a series of row houses all of which had their porch lights on. On a bus shelter someone, presumably the arsonist, had scrawled in white paint ‘Property Is Theft.’ It was so quiet out he wondered if he was still dreaming until he heard the dog barking behind the fence of the sandstone house in the middle of the block. Whenever he passed the place, regardless of the hour, the dog barked and barked until he reached the end of the block. He knew a couple of letter carriers who were bit by the animal and was glad he never had to deliver mail to that address.
Some ten minutes later, as he approached the railroad tracks, he thought he smelled something burning and paused and looked around and through some trees saw plumes of smoke pouring from the water tower half a mile away. It was one of the oldest structures in the neighborhood and was the setting for several weddings over the years. He couldn't believe it, wondered again if he was dreaming, and started to run toward it.
He was not more than twenty yards away when he spotted someone in a camouflage parka watching the tower burn from across the street.
Immediately he assumed it was the person who started the blaze and yelled out, “What the hell have you done?”
The guy spun around and glared at him for half a second then took off running. Barnes started after him, but his legs were so heavy it seemed as if he were slogging through mud. He was just too tired to chase the guy, he realized, as he watched him disappear into the woods.
He was not upset, though, not tonight anyway.