By Danny Johnson
The events in my life, whether good or bad, were of my own doing; I have no regrets and make no apologies. I was born during Hurricane Hazel in 1955, the albino son of a high-yellow whore and a sorry-assed white man. My life began in wildness, and pretty much never changed. I had to learn to live without mercy or fear. Even when I wanted to change my life, the life wouldn’t let me.
Momma told me that the night I came into the world, we were living in the backwoods in a two-room shack that somebody converted from an old pack house. She thought for sure we were going to be lifted up and sent sailing to the hereafter. The old midwife down the road wouldn’t come, scared she’d be hell bound before her time, so momma squatted on the floor and pushed me out. Daddy cut the cord with his pocketknife, and neither one had much hope I’d live out the night. There have been times since I wish I hadn’t.
My name is Henry “Cotton” Williams. My prisoner number is 50782056, and in two days time the State of North Carolina is going to kill me. I’m on the first day of a three-day deathwatch. They never turn out the light in my cell, and somebody looks at me twenty-four hours a day, afraid I’ll somehow cheat the State of their revenge.
They said l murdered another man, and what they say is true. My motivation was vengeance for a wrong, the same as theirs is for me. Only my execution of him was quicker than what I expect. I wouldn’t put a human through three days of torture, sitting around waiting to enter that final darkness.
Will I regret it when they strap me down? Maybe. I’m not tired of living, but I’m tired of living like this. After ten years on death row, I finally told the nice young lawyer kids to stop. If I couldn’t live free, then fuck it.
A preacher-man came by to save my soul. I told him when my spirit rose, I’d try to get a message about where I was so he’d know to pray high or low, but, in the mean time, don’t waste any more visits. If I’m going to meet my maker I’ll go alone, just like I’ve done everything else in my life.
I have no fear of heaven or hell. The fear is there will be nothing, just darkness; the final madness being the atheist were right all along.
This death-cell stinks of dread and fright. I can smell the others who have been where I’m at, slept in this bed, paced this floor. Sometimes I see their shadows, still left here lurking, looking for their owners.
The guard asked about my last meal. I told him a good piece of fried chicken, cornbread, slaw, cream potatoes, and a tall glass of sweet tea, all made by my momma. He unnecessarily reminded me she was dead. I told him it was okay, I would wait for the resurrection.
I have lived in a cell not far from this one, watched and heard others go from death row to the death house. We all yelled goodbye to each one; some laughed, some cried, and some told us to go fuck ourselves.
When it came time for the execution, the cellblock would get quiet, waiting to see if a miracle would happen and they would bring him back. It only happened once in my years, but they came for him again two weeks later and killed him. If that’s not cruel I don’t know what is. Once they put me in the electric chair, pull the switch quick. I don’t want to travel this road twice.
The furtherest back I can remember is when I was about six years old. I recall working in the hot sun, my pale skin burning, doing the best I could to handle a grubbing hoe, scratching potatoes from ground as hard as pavement.
“Boy, you want to eat, you better be digging,” my daddy would say. It didn’t matter about the blisters in each hand.
The summers were suffocating and the wintertime was misery. When it was really cold, my momma would make me a pallet close to the fire so I could stay some warm. I got a lot of scars from embers popping off wood in the fireplace, my skin saving the place from burning down more than once. There weren’t any such thing as Christmas around our house, just another excuse for daddy to get drunk.
My momma told me when she got pregnant, neither white nor black would give them the sweat off a brow. It was worse after I popped out looking like a white child with the nose and lips of a colored, and pale blue eyes.
My daddy later told me he wanted to cut my throat right then, knowing I would have it worst of all, being something nobody on either side would want around.
For the first years, they both worked tenant farming, trying to keep some food in the house and clothes on our backs, though most of what we got were what other folks threw out. They tried to do the right thing, but the longness of the prospect got to be more than they could deal with.
When I got to be around twelve, daddy started drinking bad. He’d give up on working, so he went to making moonshine out in the woods next to the creek, some he sold and a lot he kept for himself. The money he got for selling mostly went back into buying the corn and sugar he needed to run the still. Got so he’d rather drink than eat, which made momma and me suffer.
One night we were plumb out of food. My daddy told me to follow him. He walked around out doors until he found an empty half-gallon whiskey bottle that weren’t broke. He went to the creek, filled it up with water, and screwed the top back on.
He led me through the woods until we came out near old man Tucker’s place. It was a dark night and we crept around until we found the corncrib, and daddy took a couple of ears before heading over to the pigpen. He rubbed off some dry kernels in his hands and lured an old sow up close. While she was down chewing on the corn, he bashed the hell out of her right between the eyes with that whiskey bottle. She hit the ground with a grunt, and shit flew out behind her.
Daddy jumped over the fence, grabbed the hog by the hind legs and I held the gate open for him. I watched while he stuck his knife in her neck to bleed her out.
He run down to the bottom a ways and came back with a long limb that he trimmed to a sharp point, then jammed it straight up the pig’s ass ‘til it come out her mouth. We each got an end and that’s how we carried her home. I felt sorry for the old pig, but my stomach growled thinking about some barbeque.
The Sheriff visited a few days later, telling daddy Mr. Tucker was pretty damn mad somebody had stole his sow hog. Wanted to know if he knew anything about it. By that time there won’t nothing left of that pig but toenails and teeth. Daddy told him he sure was sorry to hear it, and if he found out anything, he’d let Mr. Tucker know.
The law caught up to daddy one day while he was making moonshine, and the judge gave him a year of hard labor in prison. Daddy laughed when the judge said hard labor. Hell, he’d never done anything else.
“You alright, Cotton?” I looked up to see the guard, the fat one they called Hog. Made me think about my daddy and the pig.
“Yeah, just daydreaming a little, I guess.” I didn’t bother to get up from the bunk.
“Gone have some supper in a little while. Anything special I can get for you at the kitchen?” His face was pasty white and he wore a stupid looking moustache that appeared like a shit-stain over his lip. But, he wasn’t a hard ass like some of them tried to be.
“How about slipping me a big fatty in a biscuit, let me get high one last time.” I laughed with him. “Nah, nothing special, just add a little salt and pepper and hot sauce to everything so I can get some taste.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Hog waddled off in the direction of the locked pod door.
I closed my eyes again, trying to picture those early days. My momma took to whoring while daddy was in prison. She had to make money some how, and that was the only skill she had. I never felt hard towards her, making me sleep out in the barn about every Friday and Saturday night.
We had an old cat that took up around the place and, together, we’d catch rats. He’d chase them out in the open and I’d brain ‘em with a stick. It passed the time and he got to eat.
I’d sit in the dark outside the house listening to men coming and going, laughing, drinking, and my momma giving them a good bounce on the bed. Sometimes I felt like taking my buck knife and killing one of ‘em.
When daddy got out, he found what momma had been doing and beat her near to death. But, when he couldn’t get enough money to buy whiskey, he’d rent her out his self.
Finally, the rot gut shine he drank drove him crazy, and he went out in the woods, threw a rope over a tree and hung there until somebody come across him a few weeks later. By then he was pretty well rotted, just his head still hanging on the rope, swinging in the breeze.
The farmer kicked us off his land after that. Momma and me walked and hitchhiked the twenty miles to Durham. Across the tracks in a place called Hayti, momma found a woman who run a cathouse and was willing to take us in. Momma would work every night and I would wander the streets.
Being a half-breed albino didn’t make me belong to one side or the other, but black folks seemed to have more sympathy than whites. All the kids around made fun of my color and tried to kick my ass at first, but once I learned to fight, I never took no shit from any person, black or white.
I learned how to shoot craps, steal from stores, and fight like a wild man.
Sometimes I would go to school, but most times I didn’t. It was more fun to be on the streets, especially on the weekend. The corners were full of men and women laughing and drinking, and the bars stayed open all night. The smell of barbeque and fried chicken and beer made a man hungry and thirsty. Every time I got hold of some money, I’d eat until I was full.
I got a reputation as a kid who could be trusted to do what he said, so I made a fair amount of money running errands for crooks, picking up numbers slips, delivering dope, collecting money. I got my first gun at sixteen, one of the drug dealers saying I needed something to protect myself. I didn’t think I did, but I carried it just in case.
At seventeen, the police caught me with a pocket full of money and the gun. They stole the money, and then arrested me for carrying the gun. I went before the judge and he gave me the choice between going to jail or going in the Marines. I took the Marines and ended up doing four years.
That was in the early seventies, and the war was about over, so I spent most of my time riding around on ships and attacking sand beaches from California to some islands out in the ocean. I never did like it much, but the eating was good, and there were always plenty of whores around.
When I got discharged, I headed right back to Durham and Hayti. This time I didn’t run errands for anybody. I found a guy selling dope on one of the blocks, beat him with a ball bat until most of his bones was broke, then took his territory.
I kept a low profile, ran my business, and made a pocket full of money. If anybody fooled with me, I had no mercy.
My momma died from some disease, probably due to her whoring, but she lived her last days in a decent bed in a room to herself. I saw to that. I figured it was all I owed her. By twenty-two, I had shed the last of my past and ended up alone, nobody to blame or give credit to. It was all good for a long time, until one of my dealers betrayed me. I greased a forty-five, stuck it up his ass, and pulled the trigger. The police finally threatened somebody enough that he rolled on me. The trial was short and so was the sentence.
On the third day, they came for me. “It’s time, Cotton,” said Hog. He had two other guards with him and a preacher trailing.
I looked up at the ceiling from where I lay on the cot. Even up to this moment, I hadn’t been able to fully comprehend it was actually going to happen. Now it was here. This would be my last walk, my last words ever spoken, the last chance to ever see another human being. My body wouldn’t listen to my mind, and it started shaking. I couldn’t stop it.
The calls from the fellas rang out, just like I’d done to others. “Stay strong, Cotton.” Hog was holding my right arm, trying to keep me steady.
They strapped me down on the killing table. I tried to imagine my daddy and mother, wondering if either one would be waiting. I felt a strong sense of relaxation. My mind was working but I couldn’t move anything, not my eyes, my mouth, or fingers. I knew it was coming. The time of my death was here. I watched the doctor come over me, watched as he used his stethoscope on my chest, heard him announce the time of expiration.
There was no pain. It felt as if I had just went off to sleep, and now I was alive again. It was obvious they couldn’t see me, and I no longer cared. I looked all around and there was nobody.