The Olive Pit (Lucas Smith)
When Janice agreed to marry me ten years ago, her one condition was that I give up active duty and take a desk job. At the time I was one of the best marksmen on the force and at thirty-five I still had good years ahead of me. ‘I love you honey, but I couldn’t handle it if you killed someone in the line of duty or if I saw you on the news beating someone with a nightstick,’ she said. ‘Even if they deserved it a million times over, you’d be a monster to me.’
We live, or used to live, on five and a half acres in the foothills, about ten minutes drive from the station. The previous owners of our property raised racehorses and when we bought it I converted the stable into a studio for Janice. I ripped out the stalls, bleached the floor, laid down hard wood, and installed insulation and double-paned sky-lights. Janice used the spectacular views of the valley and the Traverse Mountains as inspiration for most of her work.
Sometimes she painted a whole picture in just one day, in a trance, brush hand on the canvas, the other stretched out, palm up behind her like Tinkerbell. Her paintings were all over our walls. They still sell some of them as posters and postcards at the tourist centre. She said that the valley and the mountains changed every time she looked at them, brightness, colour, shadow, and eventually I came to see that too.
In 1989, after a nationwide manhunt, Jordan Depaul, hydroponics specialist, was found in the Salt Lake City house he’d barely left for years. He was convicted of the murder of five Dole Fruit truck-drivers between the years 1985 and 1987. God’s work. He had no regrets. It was the usual story, absent mother, bitter father, twisted personal religion. After he was sentenced to death he pored over the criminal statutes and discovered that a forgotten writ permitted him to choose the firing squad instead of the customary lethal injection. Depaul’s loophole was closed the next year, but it wasn’t retroactive. His wish had to be carried out and I volunteered for some of the carrying.
After ten years of shooting paper targets at the range, ten years of reading about robberies and on-duty deaths; even petty vandalism reports started to get my blood rushing. My brother was a typist in the Vietnam War and developed sympathetic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—even though he was never fired upon—transmuting his guilt at spending the war in an air-conditioned base. That guilt, fostered by typing up accounts of atrocities day after day, destroyed him. Maybe worse than if he’d actually fought himself. I understood him.
And, I wanted to know what it felt like to shoot someone. Some of my colleagues had killed perpetrators in self-defense and it changed them, lent them a certain gravitas. Any man who tells you he’s not envious, on some level, of men with combat experience is a liar. It sounds bad to say, but I couldn’t let the opportunity pass me by. And, what difference did it make if I did the shooting or not? Someone else would.
A week before the execution Warden Jeffries gave the five of us a tour of the execution chamber. He showed us the whitewashed wall with a slit cut in it for us to shoot through, and a mockup of the target that was to be pinned over his heart; a white paper square with a black circle in the middle. ‘Now, you all know this is highly unusual. Your job is not to let it turn into a spectacle,’ he said.
He then explained the procedure we were to follow on the night. An unmarked van with no windows would pick us up at the police station at eleven and drive us to the prison. Before our arrival, our five rifles would be loaded with two rounds each. According to tradition, one of the rifles would contain two wax bullets. At five to midnight we would be handed our weapons by an officer who had not seen them being loaded. We would enter the chamber and take our positions while the warden watched from the second level through one-way glass. Depaul would walk, or, if unable to move under his own power, be escorted in and given two minutes to speak. The shooters would kneel down behind their rifles and the squad captain—the role that fell to me, as the most senior volunteer—would whisper to each in turn to see if they were ready. Then the squad captain would give the ready signal to the warden, receive final confirmation from him through an earpiece, lower his rifle and count down from one to five. Then we would fire.
My four deputies were Johnson, who exasperated his partner with his inexplicable silences on duty; Young, who lost his left ring finger to the knife of a heroin pusher in Liberty Wells; Kupeofola, an imposing, black-eyed Tongan; and Selwood, the serious one, who never broached a joke, about himself or anyone else. We all had scored perfect 75s at the range at least a dozen times and averaged above 72, our identities were unknown to everyone but ourselves and the warden, and, it must be emphasised, we all volunteered for the detail. That week, the five of us practiced with blanks at the range every day during lunch break; our goal was to fire simultaneously with one loud report instead of five scattered cracks. Accuracy was a given. From twenty feet you can’t miss with a .30-30. When we started we sounded like five cork pop guns competing for attention. By the day before the execution, after about four hundred rounds, we finally started to sound like a cannon.
When I got home from work on the night before the execution, Janice was chopping onions. I could hear the sharp knock of the knife on the wood chopping board as I opened the front door. As always when she cooks, she had the radio on and of course they were jabbering in concerned tones about the big execution. She was the only person I know who prefers radio to television. She said radio allows her to imagine a scene while television imposes one on her.
After I shook the snow off my boots I came up behind her, wrapped my arms around her and kissed the back of her neck. The sting of the onion caught my eyes and I started to tear.
‘What are you making?’
‘Bolognaise. As if you care, so long as there’s plenty of it.’ She cracked a handful of spaghetti in half and dropped it in the pot. The water hissed briefly. She turned down the radio. ‘They just said the attorneys aren’t going to file any last minute appeals. It’s up to the Parole Board now.’
‘I doubt they’ll issue a stay.’
‘Do you know any of the firing squad?’
‘I’ve met them,’ I said, which wasn’t lying.
She set out the bowls and thudded the steaming pot of pasta in the center of the table. As usual, I finished her leftovers. While we were eating desert—mint chip ice cream—she asked, ‘Do you know what he asked for? For his last meal?’
‘No.’ The warden had advised me not to read the papers until it was over.
‘Just an olive?’
‘Just an olive. And he asked to be buried with the pit in his pocket.’
I didn’t know what to say so I scooped up a spoonful of ice cream. In the silence my spoon clattered on the rim of the bowl.
She began again. ‘Why do you think he asked for that olive and nothing else?’
‘Hmmm,’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t want anything but this ice cream.’
‘It seems odd, doesn’t it? Some kind of spiritual exercise, maybe? I can’t see a political point being made with an olive.’
‘Maybe he’s trying to invoke the olive branch of peace. Trying to tell us he’s found inner peace.’
‘What would you know about inner peace?’ she said with that teasing smile.
‘More than him, I bet. What would you want for a last meal?’ I asked.
‘You,’ she said, and leaned over the table and kissed me. ‘Or five blocks of Valrhona dark chocolate.’
The next morning I woke up before dawn, primed and alert. At six I did my half hour on the treadmill, had a shower, and then put my uniform and boots on—I forgot I didn’t need to be at the station until eleven that night. I walked downstairs to the kitchen with a heightened sense of reality, that transcendent awareness that used to make me turn the patrol car down an alley on impulse to find a mugging in progress. Everything looked newly congealed. I fixed myself a cup of coffee and went over to the living room window. The soft blanket of snow outside had thickened overnight.
‘What are you doing up this early?’ Janice had come down silently in her pink slippers. I always liked how she looked in the mornings. She never took her pajamas off before noon and when she walked I’d catch hints of her firm legs and smooth hips as the material brushed against her skin.
‘I don’t know, just looking at the mountains. They aren’t half as beautiful as those paintings by Janice Lee Draper. You heard of her?’
‘Aint she the wife of that handsome cop?’
‘I believe so, yes. He sure is one lucky man.’
‘I thought you weren’t working until tonight.’ She’d noticed my uniform. I’d told her I had the eight-to-two overnight dispatch shift.
‘Uh, I don’t know. I just forgot.’
She laughed and gave me a little pat on the behind. ‘Well, put something else on and I’ll get the pancakes ready.’
I came back down in civilian clothes and sat down in front of five steaming pancakes.
‘Mmm,’ I said, as I chewed, ‘these are good enough to be a last meal.’
‘Aren’t you funny,’ she said. Then she became quiet and I knew by the way she was cutting her pancakes, slowly with exaggerated precision, that she was about to say something serious.
‘You know, I had a dream about it last night. I was facing the firing squad. But no-one put a hood on me and I was trying to explain that I was the wife of a police officer. They had mistaken me for someone else. I screamed and screamed but they shot anyway. I didn’t feel any of the shots and I still had all my senses. The bright lights were on me and a doctor came and felt my wrist and I tried to tell everyone that I was still alive but no sound would come out. And I was complaining that I didn’t even get a last meal. Then I woke up.’
‘Always thinking about food, you.’ I chuckled a little but she wasn’t laughing. ‘What was your crime?’
‘Nothing. I hadn’t done anything.’
‘But they must have at least accused you of something?’
‘I suppose they did but I didn’t know what it was.’
After breakfast Janice went off to paint so I drove to the batting cages in town. You can just put all your focus on counting the rhythm of the mechanical arm and smacking the ball as hard as you can.
After warming-up in the 75 mile-an-hour cage I moved up to the 85 and was hitting nearly every ball into the back of the net. I was in a groove. Step, swing, pop. Step, swing, pop. Two eight or nine year-olds came over to watch me and after a particularly flat line drive I heard one of them say, ‘Maybe he plays for the Bees.’
The next pitch came out with no spin on the ball. The red stitches, two curves on the white, enlarged in slow motion as they rushed towards me. Before I could get out of the way, the ball hit the knuckle of my right index finger—my trigger finger—jamming it into the bat handle. For a second I felt nothing and then it felt like my knuckle had been cracked in a vise. I’d never seen a worse pitch from a machine. Six seconds later the next pitch thudded into the canvas backstop, straight down the middle.
‘If you rub it you’re a wimp,’ said one of the kids, ‘do you play for the Bees?’
‘No, but I’m flattered you asked.’
I peeled my gloves off and walked back to the girl behind the counter clutching her phone between her two thumbs—the kids trailing—and said, ‘You should check the 85 machine. It just hit me on the hand.’
She looked up. ‘Which one?’
‘We had them all serviced last week. No one else has complained.’
‘I’m not complaining. I should have been able to dodge it anyway. I just want to make sure it won’t get anyone else.’
‘Well I don’t know what you want me to do then.’
‘Think if it hit someone in the head.’
‘I’ll tell the manager when he gets back.’
The two boys, having lost interest in me, were looking at the rare baseball cards laid out in individual cases underneath the glass countertop. Generosity sneaks up on me sometimes. Their parents probably dropped them off at the batting cages for the day because it was too cold to throw them outside. It might be hours before they were picked up again.
‘Two packs of Topps, please,’ I said to the girl.
I stretched out my hurt finger, which had begun to swell like a kielbasa, and opened my wallet with my thumb and middle finger.
‘Hey,’ I said, ‘take one each.’
They ripped open the foil packaging. ‘Thanks, Mister.’
Twenty-three years of shooting have given me hands like gold dust scales and my rifle weighed not a gram under regulation.
Aside from the few eager souls at the prison gate waving blue glow sticks and holding hands and singing, the ride over had been silent. We waited in an anteroom for what seemed like a long time. I kept my gloves on so no one would see my injury. Small talk was difficult but we did it anyway. It’s funny, I still remember Selwood saying his daughter had pneumonia.
We stood behind the concrete wall as Depaul shuffled out unassisted. A lick of white hair stood up at the back of his head. It was hard to picture this wispy man as the brash murderer on TV from fifteen years before. He declined to speak. The guard asked if he had understood that he had a right to speak. He said ‘yes, sir’ and then he was strapped to his wooden chair up on the wooden platform with black sand bags stacked high around to prevent ricochets.
His black hood was fitted, then the target was pinned to his chest with two safety pins. His bonds were double-checked and the guards withdrew. Perched between the black stacks he reminded me of a statue in its tabernacle. The others were ready. I kneeled down on the right end and took my right glove off but kept my hand in front of me so the warden couldn’t see from behind. I turned the safety off my rifle and put my finger, as tight and firm as a hose on full blast, pain barreling through it, on the outside of the trigger guard. I raised my left hand, the signal to the warden. ‘All clear, buddy,’ I heard him say. The paper target slowly turned into a baseball card and I heard myself starting to count. Around two, I remember thinking that the black now looked more like purple and the lights had brightened. I could barely make out the sandbags. I fainted somewhere before four with my finger on the trigger.
I don’t remember my rifle going off or the recoil hitting my shoulder but there was a bruise there the next day. When I came to, Kupeofola was shaking me from behind and three doctors were frantically undoing Jordan’s bonds. Blood was dripping down his chair and onto the floor. My finger was in a crucible of pain. I sat up and wrapped my arms around my knees. Kupeofola, Young and Johnson were staring at me with puzzled expressions. ‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘You hit him in the stomach,’ Selwood said.
They performed emergency surgery on Depaul that night. At two a.m. the warden decided I couldn’t be charged with any crime but I would have to present at the inquest. He drove me back to the station so I could get my car. I didn’t go home straight away but drove around looking at the encircling Traverses in the three-quarter moon.
When I got home Janice was still up, painting in the sky-lit stable. ‘The moon is good tonight,’ she said. She kissed me. ‘How was work?’
‘Quiet. It’s too cold for criminals. Did you finish anything?’
‘You’re gonna laugh at me.’
‘No, I’m not.’
‘Yes you will.’
There on the canvas, in shades of ash and pale green, was an olive. The morning took a long time to arrive.
Lucas Smith is a poet and writer from California and Gippsland, currently living in Melbourne. His work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Voiceworks, Australian Book Review, Gargouille, Cordite and elsewhere. One of his stories was highly commended in the 2012 Age Short Story Award.