A Lonely Man, A Date with Death

Harold was facing death. He had been facing death since a forgotten day in a forgotten year when he was born. But now, Harold knew the exact day he would die. He had a small calendar taped to the wall of his cell, and the day was circled in black: June 14. Each morning he awoke, Harold was twenty-four hours closer to June 14. He had been marking off the days.

June 14 had arrived. The electric chair in Texas never grew tired of waiting.

“Old Sparky:” The Texas Electric Chair

Harold was a quiet man, soft-spoken, and not a strand of gray had ever creased his black hair. He kept it slicked back with gel.  He was twenty pounds heavier than the first time I met me, and I had known Harold for two years, eight months, and twenty-one days. I had known Harold since those early morning hours before daybreak when he crawled out of a well-worn mattress of a walkup hotel on the cheap side of Fort Worth and found a woman lying beneath his bed.

She was young,

She had long auburn hair.

She was naked.

She was quite dead.

Harold had called the police.

He didn’t know what else to do.

The police said Harold had killed her.

He said they were probably right.

A patrol car took him to jail. And Harold did not sleep for the next three nights.

It did not bother him that she was dead.

It did not bother him that she was found beneath his dead.

But Harold kept searching his memory, he told me, trying desperately to remember who she was.

“She might be my wife,” he said as I sat on the bunk in his Fort Worth cell. I was working the police beat for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I talked to a lot of suspects. I talked to a lot of criminals. I heard a lot of sad stories.

I had never met anyone quite like Harold.

He had the demeanor of a parson.

He smiled a lot. It was a sad smile.

And his voice was seldom any more distinct than a faded whisper.

He did not look like a man on the edge of losing his life or taking the life of another.

I gave him the chance to blame alcohol.

He didn’t. But Harold said he did drink too much cheap whiskey.

I gave him the chance to blame drugs.

He didn’t. But Harold did say he had tried marijuana a few times. Didn’t like it. Made his sick. Had to drink whiskey to get the taste out of his mouth.

I gave him a chance to blame a tragic childhood.

He didn’t. But Harold did say his father had died when he eight, his mother had worked as a waitress at night and slept during the day. He pretty much raised himself on the streets of Amarillo. But then, he said, he figured everyone had grown up with similar circumstances.

His lot in life hadn’t been guaranteed.

Death was.

June 14.

He could not forget the date.

I had driven down to Huntsville on the morning of June 13 to see Harold one last time. He had written and asked me to be with him during his last day. He had no friends, he said. His family was scattered. Then again, he might not have a family. And at least I had a familiar face.

I had been with Harold when he was arrested. I testified at his trial. Police reporters testified often. No opinion. I was asked to tell the jury what I saw.

Harold sitting on the bed.

Dead woman under the bed.

He was smoking a cigarette.

He had a warm smile.

His eyes were sad.

He was as much in the dark as the rest of us.

“Who is she?” I had asked.

“I don’t know.”

“You kill her?”

“Probably.” Harold shrugged and smiled. “She wasn’t dead when she got here, and I doubt if she crawled under the bed by herself.”

“What reason would you have to kill her?”

“Don’t know,” he said.

Now, two years, eight months, and twenty-one days later, he still didn’t know. He smiled when I walked up to his cell on death row.

“I didn’t expect to see you,” he said.

“You invited me to be here,” I said.

“I figured you had forgotten me. Most people have.” Harold leaned against the bars and shook my hand.  “A man hates to die alone,” he said.

“You won’t have to, I said.

I was sweating. Harold wasn’t. I was nervous. Harold wasn’t. I was sick. Harold had ordered a thick steak for his last meal.

He didn’t get a chance to eat it.

At four-thirty, the Warden walked down the long hallway to the cell.

“Well, Harold,” he said, “I’m afraid you won’t be leaving us today.”

Harold raised his eyebrows.

“Your attorney has filed another appeal.” The Warden shrugged apologetically. “The execution has been stayed. You won’t be dying today.”

Harold’s smiled faded.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I died a long time ago. Besides, I won’t be able to leave here until Jesus and the devil quit fighting,”

“What are they fighting for?” I asked.

“My soul.” Harold smiled, turned, and walked back to his bunk. He slumped down on wrinkled sheets. “Neither one of them want it,” he said.

The electricity would not flicker or dim that night in Huntsville.

Caleb Pirtle III is author the Christian thriller, Golgotha Connection. 

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  • I believe that anyone who has “made up their mind” about the death penalty just hasn’t thought enough about it

    • It’s too easy to think about the poor man about to die and forget all about the pain and suffering and anguish of the victim.

  • That’s a very poignant story, Caleb, beautifully rendered. It leaves so many questions, doesn’t it? A man ought to know why he’s being executed. He ought to know by having at least some memory of what act he committed, not just by being found guilty of a charge. If he truly did not remember (which brings in the question of sanity), then he was accepting death simply because he believed in his heart he was a loser. How very sad.

    • In my days as a police reporter, I knew so many who were so imprisoned by crime, and they only way they could escape was death. Some fought it. Some accepted it. All were tormented by it.

  • So much emotion in so few words. You are a master, Caleb.

    • It’s easy to write about someone you know. I was the only one Harold invited to his death, and it was postponed. His sentence was later commuted to life, and he died in prison twenty years later. He always told me, during those last days, that death came twenty years too late.

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