Me and Joe
by Rick Combs
The warden watched me as the two burly guards on either side of the chair I sat in and busied themselves with the tightened the straps around my wrists and ankles. The metal of the straps bit uncomfortably into my skin. It was another contest: who would look away first? The warden or me? It had to be him or I’d finally lose, a totally unacceptable position for me.
As the biggest guard reached around my chest positioning the wide, leather strap, I could see the warden was getting edgy from my stare. As he dropped his eyes, seemingly to check the straps on my wrists, a slow smile grew on my face. I had won! Albeit, it was a small win, but it was still a win.
With the positioning of the metal cap, with its massive wire leading out of the top and across the floor to the wall, I was ready. Finally, completely ready. In minutes, the massive surge of electricity would be coursing through my body and destroying the life that was myself. For someone who had committed every obscene act upon other humans, this would be a fitting end.
I glanced out of the plate glass surrounding the execution chamber and looked at the pitifully few people who had ventured into the depths of this place to witness the end of my life. There was the detective who’d spent weeks tracking me down. The public defender that had represented me during the trial; thoroughly convinced of my guilt as he tried to justify my innocence. Three family members of some of my victims, and, in the last row, the one person I wish I had never met; the only person who could possibly put a stop to this, the bane of my existence and the actual cause of my pending demise.
The bar was full of stale smoke and dim lights. I sat at the bar nursing my gin and tonic, the only bright light in my life. A half-empty bowl of old, stale popcorn sat neglected in front of me and some old bluesy music played from the jukebox in the corner. I was at the end of my rope and trying to drown my sorrow with my last twenty-dollar bill. My divorce was final today. The words she said the day she left and took my two kids resounded in my head. “You’re nothing but a loser. Always have been and always will be. I don’t know what I ever saw in you.”
Two weeks after they left, the divorce papers arrived. There wasn’t much sense in contesting the divorce; she didn’t want anything from me, not that I had anything worth taking, just an end to our five years together. Today, she was a free woman. Besides the children, there was nothing else to show that we’d ever been married.
To be honest, she was right; I was a loser. I couldn’t keep a steady job; my temper always seemed to come out at the worst time. It had happened again today. I was working on a construction site, physical labor, picking up the trash around the site. The job foreman started yelling for me to start moving and earn my money instead of wasting time. Sure, I was taking a little longer to do the job but he didn’t need to yell at me in front of the rest of the crew. Luckily, he didn’t press the assault and battery charges when the cops showed up, just made sure I left the site. I didn’t really hurt him when I popped him in the face; he’s a pretty big guy. But he still went down like a load of bricks.
Someone sat down next to me and ordered a draft. I could feel his eyes on me, so I looked up from my drink and glanced in him. Kind of a short guy, balding, looked like the type that wears a suit to the office everyday. He just grinned at me. “Bud, you look like the world has just shit all over you.” And he kept right on grinning.
I grunted and turned back to my drink. No crap! The world had done it to me again and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. I glanced at the money that remained from my twenty and figured I could get two more gin and tonics.
“Let me buy you a drink, friend” my neighbor said. “You look like you could really use one.”
“Thanks,” I answered as I waved for the barkeep flirting with the girl at the end of the bar.
“Well, my friends call me Joe, what’s your name?” he asked.
“Bill. Bill Johnson.” I replied as the bartender slid my drink in front of me. “I appreciate the drink mister, but I’m not good company tonight.”
“Joe,” he smiled. “You can call me Joe. What’s the problem Bill? You never can tell; I might be able to help. You could say that helping people in part of my job.”
I looked over at Joe and noticed his eyes this time. It’s hard to say what color they are, but the intensity in them! He still had the same grin on his face, but it was the eyes that drew me in.
Sometime later, I realized that Joe and I were sitting in one of the booths along the wall and that I was finishing with the story of my life. “When did we move from the bar?” I said, completely puzzled since I didn’t remember moving from the barstool.
“Don’t worry about that Bill,” He said rather matter-of-factly, “just remember what I told you. You’ll see that everything’s going to be fine.”
“But, you didn’t tell...”
“You’ll remember when you need to Bill.” he interrupted, “You’ll know when it’s time to know.”
I could feel the water from the sponge on my head dripping down the back of my neck. I had overheard the guards talking before about a time when they hadn’t used enough water. The electric current didn’t have a good path through the body of whomever they were discussing. Charlie, the means guard on the block, was laughing about how the prisoner had still been alive as his head and hands had caught on fire. The way Charlie was telling it, it was the funniest sight he’d ever seen.
The warden stepped to the front of the execution chamber a turned on the microphone. “Bill Johnson, “ he intoned, “you have been found guilty by a jury of your peers and sentenced to be executed by electrocution for the heinous crimes you have committed.”
A jury of my peers! Boy, was that a laugh! To be my peers, they would have to have lived the life of hell that I’d been living. It’s not like this was my fault, I didn’t have a choice in it.
“The State Supreme Court as ruled that you are to die at 11:05 tonight after refusing your final appeal. The time is now 11:00. You have five minutes within which to make any final statements and to make your peace with God.”
God. That’s another laugh.
A few weeks later, I was sitting at the small table in the little efficiency apartment I was renting reading through the help wanted ads. So far, I’d been able to find one and two-day labor jobs, but the last one was three days in the past. From the ads in the paper, it didn’t look like there was going to be another one anytime soon. Although my ex-wife didn’t want any money from me, I still tried to send her what I could for the kids. That’s what hurt worst of all, I think. The divorce decree said I could only see them once a month under supervised conditions; she had taken out a restraining order shortly after filing for the divorce. She told the cops and the court that she was afraid for her children. Like I’d ever do anything to my kids!
My next supervised meeting with my kids was this weekend. I had always brought them something special on the previous times, but at this rate, I’d be lucky to have bus fare to get to the meeting.
I opened the small fridge under the counter looking for another beer. Empty, just my luck. I checked my pockets and figured I had enough to buy another six-pack. Throwing on my jacket, I headed down the street to the nearest package store. It was a cool night with fall definitely in the air. All of the other businesses had closed up shop for the day but the package store stayed open till midnight, thank goodness. Glancing at my watch, I had to hurry before they closed up too.
The bell of the opening door jangled through the store with its loud, raspy sound. Every other store used the electronic bells, but the owner of the package store was too cheap. “That bell’s been working for years. Don’t see any reason why it won’t keep on working,” he’d say to anyone who’d listen. The beer was kept in the coolers in the back of the store. As I walked down the short aisle with its collection of bags of chips, pretzels and salsa, I heard the old man yell from the back. “I’ll be right there,” he said.
As I opened the door to grab the six-pack, something stopped my hand. “You remember me, don’t you Bill?” a voice said in my head. “Now’s the time. You take care of me and I’ll take care of you.” Joe. I had forgotten all about him. But I could hear him just as though he were standing right next to me.
Much later, I realized I was standing in the office in the back of the store. It was like waking up after a long, arduous dream. The old man was sitting in the antique wooden chair facing away from me. “What’s going on?” I asked him but he didn’t respond. I tapped him on his shoulder and when I did, his body fell towards the desk in slow motion. Just like in the movies, his face fell on the papers littering the top of his desk and he didn’t move. I was shocked out of my mind. Dashing my head from side to side, I looked around the room. There was a broken beer bottle on the floor and the beer had mixed with the blood that was still seeping from under his face. “Grab the cash and get out of there,” the thought crashed through my mind. “The cops will be here any minute, you fool!”
Running out of the small office, I went behind the counter and started hitting the keys on the register. Suddenly, the cash drawer opened and I stuffed as much of the cash that I could into my pocket. Rushing through the door, I felt the rush of cold air hitting my face. I tried to stay as calm as I could as a quickly walked up the sidewalk. It wasn’t until I had thrown the latch on my apartment door, that I let the shakes that had been building up within me loose. I sank to the floor shaking and shivering. “What the hell have you done?” I gushed.
“You did what needed to be done,” Joe’s voice came back in reply. “You’ve helped cleanse the earth some. That old man was a vile, old fool. You’ve done everyone in the world a favor. He used to take his pleasure with the old women of the neighborhood in exchange for running tabs for them between paychecks. He won’t do that any more.”
“What? What do you mean?” I whimpered. “How could I do something like this?”
“You were just the vehicle for the action. I am the one who pasted judgment on him.” Joe’s voice sighed. “Remember our arrangement.”
Slowly, some of the talk from that night seeped into my mind. Joe would take care of me; help me. And in exchange I would help Joe. How I was to help him had never come up in the conversation.
“I’ve kept my part of the bargain,” the voice whispered to me, “look in your pants pockets.” Digging through my pockets, I pulled out a large wad of cash. Quickly counting it, I found I had $240 dollars in my hand, more than I had had in a long time.
“There’s no peace for me you asshole!” I spat at the warden when he’d finished with his required reading of the charges and findings. “I’ve already been to Hell, any place will be like heaven to me now.”
The warden glared at me through his bushy eyebrows and then glanced at the two guards. When a slight gesture of his head, they turned and walked out of the room. “You now have four minutes to make your peace or to make your final statement,” the warden said.
“Yeah, four more minutes of hell for me,” I replied, “and four more minutes that you have to stand there and listen to me. Let me tell you about heaven and hell, Warden. Everyone thinks that heaven and hell are some place that we go to after we die. But the true is that we’re living in heaven and hell right now.
“Trust me, heaven and hell do exist, but they overlap into our world; our existence. I’ll end up in one of them, that you can take to the bank! But it’s not going to be much different that where I’m at right now!”
As time went on, Joe’s voice would talk to me more and more frequently. I never could remember what happened during those times when Joe wanted me to “take care of someone”, as he put it. And each time, there would be whatever I needed to continue living, if you could call it that. I started having nightmares every night; vicious dreams were I would replay in my dream what I couldn’t remember doing while awake.
There was the dream of gouging out the eyes of a guy Joe said dealt in child pornography. This, before I castrated him and suffocated him with his own genitalia. The young business executive who had stolen the life savings of several old people died under my hands. He screamed with every piece of his body that I hacked off with an old butcher knife. The drug dealer whose eyes popped out of his head as I injected air into his veins in retribution of all the users that had died from his contaminated drugs.
Days after each event, the newspapers would eventually uncover the truth about the individual. It was almost a justification for everything I had done to them. And although I had more money than before, I still keep the same efficiency apartment. I didn’t want to make any drastic changes in my living because of the cops. I had been questioned several times about the different deaths, but they were never able to come up with anything to make me more than a possible suspect.
That last fateful night, the last night of my freedom, was just before Christmas. I had bought my kids several presents, all nicely wrapped with bug ribbons around them. I was going to see them that weekend. That Friday, my ex-wife called and told me I couldn’t see them. They were going away to visit her mother; I’d just have to wait until after the New Year. The rage within me grew and grew all night long. The longer I thought about it, the madder I got. I had done everything by the book and now she was going to penalize me!
I still don’t remember what happened that night. I guess Joe took over for me and did what I could only dream about. They said during the trial that I had completely dismembered my ex and had suffocated my kids. I really don’t remember. All I could remember was Joe. And now he was sitting in the last row, waiting to watch me die.
“There’s the guy you really want Warden, there in the last row. That’s Joe! That’s the son of a bitch that’s really responsible!”
The warden looked out through the plate glass at Joe before turning towards the door. “Are you talking about your court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Richmond?” he said.
“Yes, that’s Joe! They’ll catch you one of these days, you asshole! I screamed.
With the slamming of the door behind the warden, I watched the second hand of the clock creep through the last ten seconds. Soon, very soon, I could put the dreams of what I’d done behind me. No more nightmares, no more pain. As the hand reached twelve, I heard the switch being thrown just as the current surged through my body.
* * *
I opened my eyes into a blackness you can only imagine in your dreams. I felt like I was suspended in total weightlessness. A soft glow appeared in front of me. Slowly, ever so slowly, the glow became a pair of yellow eyes staring into me. Joe’s eyes.
“Bill,” I heard him whisper to me, “I told you I’d take care of you, didn’t I? Why don’t we start back on that first day in the package store and go over each and every detail. Then we can move forward to all of the other ones. We’ve got the rest of eternity to analyze them.”
Copyright © 2004 by Rick Combs