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Eric Luthi

That Ain’t No Crawfish

Bill looked at the clock on the wall almost sixty feet away.  Both the minute and the hour hands pointed straight up.  He knew there was a second hand because he heard the ticking.  Especially at night when there was less noise. But he could not see it.  It was hard enough to see the other two hands in the dim light of the corridor.

Midnight.

  

December 31.

At least he had Christmas and then a week more.  No -- eight days if you counted just right and a fraction of a day was considered a whole day.

A heavy door opened and the footsteps followed, coming closer.

“Bill?”  Samuel spoke in a voice that tested to see if he was awake.  It didn’t matter.  Sam would wake him if he were asleep.  It was part of the protocol. 

 

Sam stood in the open doorway wearing his Stetson.  

“Yeah, Sam.  I haven’t slept.”

“Figured as much.  It’s twenty-four hours.”

“Thanks.”  

This last was almost a whisper.  But Sam understood.  He and Bill had known each other for more than three years.  

“Have you decided what you want to eat?”

“Crawfish.  New Orleans style.”

“Anything else?”

“Cole slaw.  Corn on the cob.  And lots of butter.”

“Can do.  A dozen enough for you?”

“Should be plenty.”

“I’ll order two dozen.”

“I can’t eat that much, Sam.”

“The second dozen are for me, Bill.  I’ll be joining you.”

Bill couldn’t speak for a moment.  When he could, he said, “I’d like that very much.”

Sam nodded and retreated the way he came, footsteps getting quieter until the door slammed shut.

Bill could hear the clock tick.


 

The heavy door opened and Bill started and looked at the clock.  Seven o’clock.  Seven hours.  He’d slept seven hours. 

 

Footsteps approached.  Change of shift.

“Cortez,” said Hinkins who worked nights.

“Glad to see you, Hinkins.  How was it?”

“Shit.”  Said Hinkins and closed his lunch pail.

“You back tonight?” said Cortez.

“Yeah.  Back in twelve.”  Hinkins rapped his knuckles on the wall.  “See you tonight, Bill.”

“Thanks, Hank,” said Bill.  “I’m glad you’ll be here.”

“I’d pass on it if I could.”

“I know.  Still –“

Hinkins walked away.  Receding footsteps followed by the heavy door opening and closing.

“What do you all have planned for me today, Mr. Cortez.”

“Just the normal routine, Bill.  Breakfast should be here in a few minutes and the doctor’s coming by after that.”

“Got to make sure I’m healthy?”

“I don’t make the rules, Bill.  I just follow orders.”

“Me, too.”

Bill stood up and stretched – hands high above his head.  Then he brought his knees up to his chest alternating his knees to work both sides.

“Any mail this morning?” said Bill. 

Mail was delivered twice each day.

“No, Bill.  Sorry.”

“That’s okay. Think you might let me go to the clock there?  I’d love to have me a sixty foot runway for a few minutes.”

“I can do that, Bill,” said Cortez.  “But it’ll be after lunch.”

“I can wait.”


 

The doctor pronounced him healthy.

“Am I really?  I thought I had diabetes and high cholesterol -- and a persistent cough from the damp.”

“Well,” the doctor smiled.  “Healthy enough for government work.”

“Okay.  I’ll give you that one.”

The clock said eleven-thirty.

 

Lunch was two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, an orange and two small cartons of milk.

“How do you know I’m not allergic to peanuts?  Maybe I’ll swell up and suffocate after I eat this second sandwich.  What do they call it?  Anaphylactic shock?”

“I think we’d a known before this,” said Cortez.

“You guys think of everything.”

 

After lunch was cleared away, Cortez made a phone call.  A few minutes later another man entered through the heavy door.  He waited by the clock while Cortez walked over to him.  The two had a quiet conversation.  After a few minutes, Cortez came back.

“You got your runway.”

“Thanks, Rick.”

“But no running,” said Cortez.

“No.  Don’t think I could.”

Bill walked the sixty feet to the clock and turned around.  He took longer strides the second time and stretched his legs to their maximum the third time round. 

 

 

“Okay, that’s enough,” said Cortez after Bill had done thirty laps.

“That’s fine,” said Bill.  “I’m getting a little tired.”

Bill sat down on his bunk.

The heavy door closed and the man next to the clock was gone.

The long hand was straight up and the small fat one pointed at the two.

“Can I get you anything,” said Cortez.

“No, Rick.  I’m fine.”

“Something to read?  Play some cards?”

“I think I’ll just take a nap.”

“Okay.”

 

Bill dreamt of walking among the pine trees in Cloudcroft, New Mexico and hearing the water in the creek.  He came to a pond out of which the creek flowed that was itself filled by a thirty foot waterfall.  He stood at the edge of the pond and let the mist from the falling water soak his face and hair.  And it was cold.

 

“Bill?”

“Sam?  Are you back already?”  Bill rolled to a sitting position.  Someone had set up a table in the corridor with a white tablecloth covering it.  “Wow.”

“Dinner’s almost here.  You might want to wash up.”

While he washed his face and hands, Bill heard the door open and a man rolled a cart up to the table and unloaded trays of food.  Bill dried himself and headed toward the table.  There were two chairs.  Before he sat down, he turned to Cortez, his eyes asking the question.

Cortez shook his head, no.

Bill nodded and turned back to Sam.

“Just you and me?”

“Just me and you.”

“Cortez?”

“No.”

“Okay.”

Sam motioned to the chair in the middle of the corridor while he sat down in the chair against the wall.  The man who had brought the cart stayed back by the door.  Cortez stood up but stayed behind Bill’s chair.  Sam took off his hat and set it down next to his chair.

Sam lifted the lids revealing first the coleslaw, then the corn and then the main course, crawfish.  There was a larger crawfish in the middle of all the smaller ones.  Bill laughed.

“That ain’t no crawfish.  Least no one that I ever saw.”

“That’s a special one for you, Bill.  That’s a lobster.  I figured we could give you a treat.”

“That’s real nice of you, Sam.”

They ate.  Hinkins came back on.  Cortez came to Bill and held out his hand.

“God bless you, Rick,” said Bill.

Cortez shook Bill’s hand but said nothing.

The heavy door closed after the man with the cart and Cortez walked out.

 

“It’s been a long run,” said Sam.

“I would have changed things.”

“I know.  We all know.”

“Would you tell them I’m sorry.”

“They know.”

“Tell ‘em once more, for me.”

“I will.”

“And Carol?”

“Bill – “

“No. If she writes – would you write back for me? Tell her – I wrote to her yesterday, but – well you’ll know what to say.”

“Of course,” said Sam. “Anything else?”

“No.  I’m just going to sit here and listen to the clock.”

“You can hear that thing this far away?”

“Every second.”

“Okay, then.  I’ll see you in a bit.”

Sam went out and the clock ticked.

 

Bill almost counted to nine thousand seconds when the heavy door opened and they came for him, three men and Sam.

“It’s time, Bill.”

Bill nodded and stood for the chains.  He stopped counting and closed his eyes.  They took him out through the heavy door and to another room where they laid him on a gurney and put needles in his arms and spoke words over him.  He no longer knew what was said until he heard Sam’s voice once more.

“Last words, Bill?”

Bill’s mouth was dry but he managed to whisper, “I love you guys.”

Bill felt cold under his skin as the chemicals entered his veins. The lights dimmed and the last words he heard were not from Sam but from a medical technician he did not know and who sounded far away.

“Time of death: 12:31.”

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