He is two hundred miles out of the city when the dawn catches up with him. His spirits dip like the needle on the fuel tank. The night had seemed an endless highway, an endless escape; now the sky is the colour of newspapers he no longer reads. He tries to bring himself to believe in the day's return, in its newness, its twilight hope; but the whole thing seems false to him, the very horizon an act of propaganda, a meeting of earth and sky that he knows can never come true.
He stops at a roadside diner, orders coffee and eggs, wondering where he's going to find the appetite. The place is empty - he must be the first customer of the day. The waitress smiles at him as she takes his order. He wonders if she would still smile that way if she knew where he was coming from, knew what he had done. She probably thinks I'm some sort of travelling salesman, he thinks. It occurs to him that that's exactly what he is - a salesman of Death - the condemned his only customers. No repeat business in his line of work.
He shakes his head. No use thinking that way. These out of town jobs are always the worst. Sure, they pay well and someone has to do them, but there's something very alien about driving 500 miles just to kill a man (as though death were some sort of special delivery), a peculiar sort of emptiness. Like the hollow feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when your plane lurches into turbulence or when you come off the top of a roller-coaster and realise there's nothing beneath you but the drop. Something almost sacrilegeous about being out in this lonely country, in the freedom of these distances, so soon after a man's death. Something aching and misunderstood.
A man's death. Say rather a boy's death, for that's what he really was, the one this morning, a boy, barely twenty years old. Just your average teenager - awkward walk, gawky hair, an uneven shave - and that air of demonstrative defiance that tells you they're really, really frightened. Only the thing this teenager was afraid of wasn't the future, it was Death, a much sterner school master, a grown-up much harder to defy. Still, just a kid, after all.
A kid who was a killer, he reminds himself. Running over the facts of the case one more time, running over those horrifying pictures in the paper (Why do they let them put stuff like that on the front page anyway?). Not his decision anyway. Due process. Jury of peers. Appeals, petitions for pardon. All the deliberate and venerable machinery of the law that led to that moment on the gallows. Besides, it had to be done - it was the law of the land, it was for the greater good.
He drops argument after argument into the black memory of that night, like cubes of sugar into a cup of coffee, watching them dissolve and disappear.
Better not to think about it. Still a long drive ahead before he gets home. Another five hours or so, if he doesn't stop for lunch on the way. Mary will be waiting for him at home, he knows, having taken the day off, the way she always does. They will not talk about this, of course, will, in fact, say nothing to each other - he not wanting to dwell on the details, she knowing that he needs the silence. He will take all his clothes off, sink gratefully into a warm bath. She will stand behind him, rubbing the tension out of his shoulders with her firm, loving hands, while he closes his eyes and tries to forget, tries to wash the memory out of himself, leave it behind him like a pool of faintly muddied water. Afterwards a quick meal (he will have no appetite, but will have to eat anyway, she will insist) and then a long, long nap right through the afternoon, waking to find the children home, seeing the dim shape of anxiety in their eyes. He will spend the evening playing with the younger ones (though not with Eric - Eric knows what his father does for a living, Eric is old enough to disapprove), crushing them in his embrace as though they were Life, feeling how delicate their bones are.
Five hours, maybe six. The eggs on his plate are getting cold but he isn't really interested. He pokes at them with his fork, like a man fidgeting with a map, drawing and redrawing the boundaries of his hunger. He is tired of this place, it suffocates him, he wants to get away. But something very like necessity weighs down on him, something very like duty. There's a voice in his head telling him he must be sensible, must eat, must do what needs to be done. He wishes he could get a drink but it's too early for the bars to be open and anyway he has a long way to drive. He wishes he hadn't given up smoking.
Through the diner window he can see his car, standing alone in the parking lot. His ceremonial gown in the back seat. People make fun of him for his gown - apparently they don't wear them any more, the others - apparently they do the job in plain formals, sometimes even in jeans. Like clerks or mechanics. He can't bring himself to think of it that way, as though taking a man's life were no different from fixing a dynamo or selling a vacuum cleaner. He thinks of every execution as a special rite, the precise and ancient ritual of some pagan creed of which he is the last surviving priest. It's silly, he knows, and superstitious, but he needs the sense of ceremony, the sense of something meaningful and mysterious. His one regret is that he's not allowed to wear a hood. Hoods are important, he feels, they're a way of denying his own role in the proceedings, of underlining the fact that is not he himself but some faceless servant of an anonymous system who is sending this man to his death. He hates the way they look at him, the condemned ones, how they stare into his face trying to recognise in it the features of their own death. This is not me, he wants to tell them, this is only the disguise I have been asked to put on for you, the mask of executioner, the camouflage of heartlessness. I am like the stripper who seduces you with a desire she does not feel. But of course, he is not allowed to talk to the prisoners. He is neither enemy nor confidante, neither friend nor foe. He is just a technician, brought there for his own special expertise to get the job done as efficiently as possible.
Just a technician. The thought is both demeaning and a release. Just a cog in a larger apparatus. He beckons to the waitress, signals that she may clear the food away. He has barely touched the eggs, but it is too late now, he has no appetite. You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. But what if you didn't want the omelette in the first place, what if you only asked for it because you thought you had to, because someone else told you to?
The waitress comes over and hands him his check, then wipes the table clean with a damp cloth. If only it were that easy, he thinks to himself, watching the sheen of the water glisten and then fade on the tabletop. If only we could wipe the table clean each time, get rid of all the crumbs, start again. If only he had gone to college the way his mother wanted him to, if only there were something else he was good at, something else he could do. He sighs. No use thinking about it now. There are bills that must be paid, roads that must be travelled; he is still five long hours away from home. Time to get on with it.
As he leaves, the waitress waves goodbye, wishes him a good day. He wishes her back, and in his heart those simple words are changed into a blessing, a prayer for the rightness of the world, for its abiding innocence. As he walks towards his car, the sun is just rising over the distant hills and the Utah sunlight seems removed, distant, heartlessly cold. He takes a deep breath and steps out into the light, his shoulders lifting in automatic defiance. Knowing that what must follow is irrevocable. Knowing that there is no other way.