/ Language: English / Genre:sf_social

The Green Mile (eng.)

Stephen King


The Green Mile

Stephen King

1996

Contents

I  Foreword: A Letter

II  The Two Dead Girls

1 1

2 2

3 3

4 4

5 5

6 6

7 7

8 8

III  The Mouse on the Mile

9 1

10 2

11 3

12 4

13 5

14 6

15 7

16 8

17 9

18 10

19 11

IV  Coffey’s Hands

20 1

21 2

22 3

23 4

24 5

25 6

26 7

27 8

28 9

29 10

V  The Bad Death of Eduard Delacroix

30 1

31 2

32 3

33 4

34 5

35 6

36 7

37 8

38 9

VI  Night Journey

39 1

40 2

41 3

42 4

43 5

44 6

45 7

46 8

47 9

VII  Coffey on the Mile

48 1

49 2

50 3

51 4

52 5

53 6

54 7

55 8

56 9

57 10

58 11

59 12

60 13

61 Author’s Afterword

Part I

Foreword: A Letter

Dear Constant Reader,

Life is a capricious business. The story which begins in this little book exists in this form because of a chance remark made by a realtor I have never met. This happened a year ago, on Long Island. Ralph Vicinanza, a long-time friend and business associate of mine (what he does mostly is to sell foreign publishing rights for books and stories), had just rented a house there. The realtor remarked that the house “looked like something out of a story by Charles Dickens.”

The remark was still on Ralph’s mind when he welcomed his first houseguest, British publisher Malcolm Edwards. He repeated it to Edwards, and they began chatting about Dickens. Edwards mentioned that Dickens had published many of his novels in installments, either folded into magazines or by themselves as chapbooks, (I don’t know the origin of this word, meaning a smaller-than-average book, but have always loved its air of intimacy and friendliness). Some of the novels, Edwards added, were actually written and revised in the shadow of publication; Charles Dickens was one novelist apparently not afraid of a deadline.

Dickens’s serialized novels were immensely popular; so popular, in fact, that one of them precipitated a tragedy in Baltimore. A large group of Dickens fans crowded onto a waterfront dock, anticipating the arrival of an English ship with copies of the final installment of The Old Curiosity Shop on board. According to the story, several would-be readers were jostled into the water and drowned.

I don’t think either Malcolm. or Ralph wanted anyone drowned, but they were curious as to what would happen if serial publication were tried again today. Neither was immediately aware that it has happened (there really is nothing new under the sun) on at least two occasions. Tom Wolfe published the first draft of his novel Bonfire of the Vanities serially in Rolling Stone magazine, and Michael McDowell (The Amulet, Gilded Needles, The Elementals, and the screenplay Beetlejuice) published a novel called Blackwater in paperback installments. That novel— a horror story about a Southern family with the unpleasant familial trait of turning into alligators— was not McDowell’s best, but enjoyed good success for Avon Books, all the same.

The two men further speculated about what might happen if a writer of popular fiction were to try issuing a novel in chapbook editions today—little paperbacks that might sell for a pound or two in Britain, or perhaps three dollars in America (where most paperbacks now sell for $6.99 or $7.99). Someone like Stephen King might make an interesting go of such an experiment, Malcolm said, and from there the conversation moved on to other topics.

Ralph more or less forgot the idea, but it recurred to him in the fall of 1995, following his return from the Frankfurt Book Fair, a kind of international trade show where every day is a showdown for foreign agents like Ralph. He broached the serialization/ chapbook idea to me along with a number of other matters, most of which were automatic turndowns.

The chapbook idea was not an automatic turndown, though; unlike the interview in the Japanese Playboy or the all-expenses-paid tour of the Baltic Republics, it struck a bright spark in my imagination. I don’t think that I am a modern Dickens-if such a person exists, it is probably John Irving or Salman Rushdie but I have always loved stories told in episodes. It is a format I first encountered in The Saturday Evening Post, and I liked it because the end of each episode made the reader an almost equal participant with the writer—you had a whole week to try to figure out the next twist of the snake. Also, one read and experienced these stories more intensely, it seemed to me, because they were rationed. You couldn’t gulp, even if you wanted to (and if the story was good, you did).

Best of all, in my house we often read them aloud-my brother, David, one night, myself the next, my mother taking a turn on the third, then back to my brother again. It was a rare chance to enjoy a written work as we enjoyed the movies we went to and the TV programs (Rawhide, Bonanza, Route 66) that we watched together; they were a family event. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered Dickens’s novels had been enjoyed by families of his day in much the same fashion. only their fireside agonizings over the fate of Pip and Oliver and David Copperfield went on for years instead of a couple of months (even the longest of the Post serials rarely ran much more than eight installments).

There was one other thing that I liked about the idea, an appeal that I suspect only the writer of suspense tales and spooky stories can fully appreciate: in a story which is published in installments, the writer gains an ascendancy over the reader which he or she cannot otherwise enjoy: simply put. Constant Reader, you cannot flip ahead and see how matters turn out.

I still remember walking into our living room once when I was twelve or so and seeing my mother in her favorite rocker, peeking at the end of an Agatha Christie paperback while her finger held her actual place around page 50. I was appalled, and told her so Q was twelve. remember. an age at which boys first dimly begin to realize that they know everything), suggesting that reading the end of a mystery novel before you actually get there was on a par with eating the white stuff out of the middle of Oreo cookies and then throwing the cookies themselves away. She laughed her wonderful unembarrassed laugh and said perhaps that was so, but sometimes she just couldn’t resist the temptation. Giving in to temptation was a concept I could understand; I had plenty of my own, even at twelve. But here, at last, is an amusing cure for that temptation. Until the final episode arrives in bookstores, no one is going to know how The Green Mile turns out …and that may include me.

Although there was no way he could have known it, Ralph Vicinanza, mentioned the idea of a novel in installments at what was, for me, the perfect psychological moment. I had been playing with a story idea on a subject I had always suspected I would get around to sooner or later: the electric chair. “Old Sparky” has fascinated me ever since my first James Cagney movie, and the first Death Row tales I ever read (in a book called Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing, written by Warden Lewis E. Lawes) fired the darker side of my imagination. What, I wondered, would it be like to walk those last forty yards to the electric chair, knowing you were going to die there? Mat, for that matter, would it be like to be the man who had to strap the condemned in …or pull the switch? What would such a job take out of you? Even creepier, what might it add?

I had tried these basic ideas, always tentatively, on a number of different frameworks over the last twenty or thirty years. I had written one successful novella set in prison (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption), and had sort of come to the conclusion that that was probably it for me, when this take on the idea came along. There were lots of things I liked about it, but nothing more than the narrator’s essentially decent voice; low-key, honest, perhaps a little wide-eyed, he is a Stephen King narrator if ever there was one. So I got to work, but in a tentative, stop-and-start way. Most of the second chapter was written during a rain delay at Fenway Park!

When Ralph called, I had filled a notebook with scribbled pages of The Green Mile, and realized I was building a novel when I should have been spending my time clearing my desk for revisions on a book already written (Desperation—you’ll see it soon, Constant Reader). At the point I had come to on Mile, there are usually just two choices: put it away (probably never to be picked up again) or cast everything else aside and chase.

Ralph suggested a possible third alternative, a story that could be written the same way it would be read—in installments. And I liked the high-wire aspect of it, too: fall down on the job, fail to carry through, and all at once about a million readers are howling for your blood. No one knows this any better than me, unless it’s my secretary, Juliann Eugley; we get dozens of angry letters each week, demanding the next book in the Dark Tower cycle (patience, followers of Roland; another year or so and your wait will end, I promise). One of these contained a Polaroid of a teddy-bear in chains, with a message cut out of newspaper headlines and magazine covers: RELEASE THE NEXT DARK TOWER BOOK AT ONCE OR THE BEAR DIES, it said. I put it up in my office to remind myself both of my responsibility and of how wonderful it is to have people actually care—a little—about the creatures of one’s imagination.

In any case, I’ve decided to publish The Green Mile in a series of small paperbacks, in the nineteenthcentury manner, and I hope you’ll write and tell me (a) if you liked the story, and (b) if you liked the seldom used but rather amusing delivery system. It has certainly energized the writing of the story, although at this moment (a rainy evening in October of 1995) it is still far from done, even in rough draft, and the outcome remains in some doubt. That is part of the excitement of the whole thing, though-at this point I’m driving through thick fog with the pedal all the way to the metal. Most of all, I want to say that if you have even half as much fun reading this as I did writing it, we’ll both be well off. Enjoy …and why not read this aloud, with a friend? If nothing else, it will shorten the time until the next installment appears on your newsstand or in your local bookstore.

In the meantime, take care, and be good to one another.

Stephen King

Part II

The Two Dead Girls

Chapter 1

1

This happened in 1932, when the state penitentiary was still at Cold Mountain. And the electric chair was there, too, of course.

The inmates made jokes about the chair, the way people always make jokes about things that frighten them but can’t be gotten away from. They called it Old Sparky, or the Big Juicy. They made cracks about the power bill, and how Warden Moores would cook his Thanksgiving dinner that fall, with his wife, Melinda, too sick to cook.

But for the ones who actually had to sit down in that chair, the humor went out of the situation in a hurry. I presided over seventy-eight executions during my time at Cold Mountain (that’s one figure I’ve never been confused about; I’ll remember it on my deathbed), and I think that, for most of those men, the truth of what was happening to them finally hit all the way home when their ankles were being clamped to the stout oak of “Old Sparky’s” legs. The realization came then (you would see it rising in their eyes, a kind of cold dismay) that their own legs had finished their careers. The blood still ran in them, the muscles were still strong, but they were finished, all the same; they were never going to walk another country mile or dance with a girl at a barn-raising. Old Sparky’s clients came to a knowledge of their deaths from the ankles up. There was a black silk bag that went over their heads after they had finished their rambling and mostly disjointed last remarks. It was supposed to be for them, but I always thought: it was really for us, to keep us from seeing the awful tide of dismay in their eyes as they realized they were going to die with their knees bent.

There was no death row at Cold Mountain, only E Block, set apart from the other four and about a quarter their size, brick instead of wood, with a horrible bare metal roof that glared in the summer sun like a delirious eyeball. Six cells inside, three on each side of a wide center aisle, each almost twice as big as the cells in the other four blocks. Singles, too. Great accommodations for a prison (especially in the thirties), but the inmates would have traded for cells in any of the other four. Believe me, they would have traded.

There was never a time during my years as block superintendent when all six cells were occupied at one time—thank God for small favors. Four was the most, mixed black and white (at Cold Mountain, there was no segregation among the walking dead), and that was a little piece of hell. One was a woman, Beverly McCall. She was black as the ace of spades and as beautiful as the sin you never had nerve enough to commit. She put up with six years of her husband beating her, but wouldn’t put up with his creeping around for a single day. On the evening after she found out he was cheating, she stood waiting for the unfortunate Lester McCall, known to his pals (and, presumably, to his extremely short-term mistress) as Cutter, at the top of the stairs leading to the apartment over his barber shop. She waited until he got his overcoat half off, then dropped his cheating guts onto his two-tone shoes. Used one of Cutter’s own razors to do it. Two nights before she was due to sit in Old Sparky, she called me to her cell and said she had been visited by her African spirit-father in a dream. He told her to discard her slave-name and to die under her free name, Matuomi. That was her request, that her death warrant should be read under the name of Beverly Matuomi. I guess her spirit-father didn’t give her any first name, or one she could make out, anyhow. I said yes, okay, fine. One thing those years serving as the bull-goose screw taught me was never to refuse the condemned unless I absolutely had to. In the case of Beverly Matuomi, it made no difference anyway. The governor called the next day around three in the afternoon, commuting her sentence to life in the Grassy Valley Penal Facility for Women-all penal and no penis, we used to say back then. I was glad to see Bev’s round ass going left instead of right when she got to the duty desk, let me tell you.

Thirty-five years or so later—had to be at least thirty-five—I saw that name on the obituary page of the paper, under a picture of a skinny-faced black lady with a cloud of white hair and glasses with rhinestones at the corners. It was Beverly. She’d spent the last ten years of her life a free woman, the obituary said, and had rescued the small-town library of Raines Falls pretty much single-handed. She had also taught Sunday school and had been much loved in that little backwater. LIBRARIAN DIES OF HEART FAILURE, the headline said, and below that, in smaller type, almost as an afterthought: Served Over Two Decades in Prison for Murder. Only the eyes, wide and blazing behind the glasses with the rhinestones at the corners, were the same. They were the eyes of a woman who even at seventy-whatever would not hesitate to pluck a safety razor from its blue jar of disinfectant, if the urge seemed pressing. You know murderers, even if they finish up as old lady librarians in dozey little towns. At least you do if you’ve spent as much time minding murderers as I did. There was only one time I ever had a question about the nature of my job. That, I reckon, is why I’m writing this.

The wide corridor up the center of E Block was floored with linoleum the color of tired old limes, and so what was called the Last Mile at other prisons was called the Green Mile at Cold Mountain. It ran, I guess, sixty long paces from south to north, bottom to top. At the bottom was the restraint room. At the top end was a T-junction. A left turn meant life—if you called what went on in the sunbaked exercise yard life, and many did; many lived it for years, with no apparent ill effects. Thieves and arsonists and sex criminals, all talking their talk and walking their walk and making their little deals.

A right turn, though—that was different. First you went into my office (where the carpet was also green, a thing I kept meaning to change and not getting around to), and crossed in front of my desk, which was flanked by the American flag on the left and the state flag on the right. On the far side were two doors. One led into the small W.C. that I and the Block E guards (sometimes even Warden Moores) used; the other opened on a kind of storage shed. This was where you ended up when you walked the Green Mile. It was a small door—I had to duck my head when I went through, and John Coffey actually had to sit and scoot. You came out on a little landing, then went down three cement steps to a board floor. It was a miserable room without heat and with a metal roof, just like the one on the block to which it was an adjunct. It was cold enough in there to see your breath during the winter, and stifling in the summer. At the execution of Elmer Manfred—in July or August of ’30, that one was, I believe—we had nine witnesses pass out.

On the left side of the storage shed—again—there was life. Tools (all locked down in frames criss-crossed with chains, as if they were carbine rifles instead of spades and pickaxes), dry goods, sacks of seeds for spring planting in the prison gardens, boxes of toilet paper, pallets cross-loaded with blanks for the prison plate-shop…even bags of lime for marking out the baseball diamond and the football gridiron—the cons played in what was known as The Pasture, and fall afternoons were greatly looked forward to at Cold Mountain.

On the right—once again—death. Old Sparky his ownself, sitting up on a plank platform at the southeast corner of the store room, stout oak legs, broad oak arms that had absorbed the terrorized sweat of scores of men in the last few minutes of their lives, and the metal cap, usually hung jauntily on the back of the chair, like some robot kid’s beanie in a Buck Rogers comic-strip. A cord ran from it and through a gasket-circled hole in the cinderblock wall behind the chair. Off to one side was a galvanized tin bucket. If you looked inside it, you would see a circle of sponge, cut just right to fit the metal cap. Before executions, it was soaked in brine to better conduct the charge of direct-current electricity that ran through the wire, through the sponge, and into the condemned man’s brain.

Chapter 2

2

1932 was the year of John Coffey. The details would be in the papers, still there for anyone who cared enough to look them out—someone with more energy than one very old man whittling away the end of his life in a Georgia nursing home. That was a hot fall, I remember that; very hot, indeed. October almost like August, and the warden’s wife, Melinda, up in the hospital at Indianola for a spell. It was the fall I had the worst urinary infection of my life, not bad enough to put me in the hospital myself, but almost bad enough for me to wish I was dead every time I took a leak. It was the fall of Delacroix, the little half-bald Frenchman with the mouse, the one that came in the summer and did that cute trick with the spool. Mostly, though, it was the fall that John Coffey came to E Block, sentenced to death for the rape-murder of the Detterick twins.

There were four or five guards on the block each shift, but a lot of them were floaters. Dean Stanton, Harry Terwilliger, and Brutus Howell (the men called him “Brutal,” but it was a joke, he wouldn’t hurt a fly unless he had to, in spite of his size) are all dead now, and so is Percy Wetmore, who really was brutal …not to mention stupid. Percy had no business on E Block, where an ugly nature was useless and sometimes dangerous, but he was related to the governor by marriage, and so he stayed.

It was Percy Wetmore who ushered Coffey onto the block, with the supposedly traditional cry of “Dead man walking! Dead man walking here!”

It was still as hot as the hinges of hell, October or not. The door to the exercise yard opened, letting in a flood of brilliant light and the biggest man I’ve ever seen, except for some of the basketball fellows they have on the TV down in the “Resource Room” of this home for wayward droolers I’ve finished up in. He wore chains on his arms and across his water-barrel of a chest; he wore legirons on his ankles and shuffled a chain between them that sounded like cascading coins as it ran along the lime—colored corridor between the cells. Percy Wetmore was on one side of him, skinny little Harry Terwilliger was on the other, and they looked like children walking along with a captured bear. Even Brutus Howell looked like a kid next to Coffey, and Brutal was over six feet tall and broad as well, a football tackle who had gone on to play at LSU until he flunked out and came back home to the ridges.

John Coffey was black, like most of the men who came to stay for awhile in E Block before dying in Old Sparky’s lap, and he stood six feet, eight inches tall. He wasn’t all willowy like the TV basketball fellows, though—he was broad in the shoulders and deep through the chest, laced over with muscle in every direction. They’d put him in the biggest denims they could find in Stores, and still the cuffs of the pants rode halfway up on his bunched and scarred calves. The shirt was open to below his chest, and the sleeves stopped somewhere on his forearms. He was holding his cap in one huge hand, which was just as well; perched on his bald mahogany ball of a head, it would have looked like the kind of cap an organgrinder’s monkey wears, only blue instead of red. He looked like he could have snapped the chains that held him as easily as you might snap the ribbons on a Christmas present, but when you looked in his face, you knew he wasn’t going to do anything like that. It wasn’t dull—although that was what Percy thought, it wasn’t long before Percy was calling him the ijit—but lost. He kept looking around as if to make out where he was. Maybe even who he was. My first thought was that he looked like a black Samson …only after Delilah had shaved him smooth as her faithless little hand and taken all the fun out of him.

“Dead man walking!” Percy trumpeted, hauling on that bear of a man’s wristcuff, as if he really believed he could move him if Coffey decided he didn’t want to move anymore on his own. Harry didn’t say anything, but he looked embarrassed. “Dead man—!’

“That’ll be enough of that,” I said. I was in what was going to be Coffey’s cell, sitting on his bunk. I’d known he was coming, of course, was there to welcome him and take charge of him, but had no idea of the man’s pure size until I saw him. Percy gave me a look that said we all knew I was an asshole (except for the big dummy, of course, who only knew how to rape and murder little girls), but he didn’t say anything.

The three of them stopped outside the cell door, which was standing open on its track. I nodded to Harry, who said: “Are you sure you want to be in there with him, boss?” I didn’t often hear Harry Terwilliger sound nervous—he’d been right there by my side during the riots of six or seven years before and had never wavered, even when the rumors that some of them had guns began to circulate—but he sounded nervous then.

“Am I going to have any trouble with you, big boy?” I asked, sitting there on the bunk and trying not to look or sound as miserable as I felt—that urinary infection I mentioned earlier wasn’t as bad as it eventually got, but it was no day at the beach, let me tell you. Coffey shook his head slowly—once to the left, once to the right, then back to dead center. Once his eyes found me, they never left me.

Harry had a clipboard with Coffey’s forms on it in one hand. “Give it to him,” I said to Harry “Put it in his hand.”

Harry did. The big mutt took it like a sleepwalker.

“Now bring it to me, big boy,” I said, and Coffey did, his chains jingling and rattling. He had to duck his head just to enter the cell.

I looked up and down mostly to register his height as a fact and not an optical illusion. It was real: six feet, eight inches. His weight was given as two-eighty, but I think that was only an estimate; he had to have been three hundred and twenty, maybe as much as three hundred and fifty pounds. Under the space for scars and identifying marks, one word had been blocked out in the laborious printing of Magnusson, the old trusty in Registration: Numerous.

I looked up. Coffey had shuffled a bit to one side and I could see Harry standing across the corridor in front of Delacroix’s cell—he was our only other prisoner in E Block when Coffey came in. Del was a slight, balding man with the worried face of an accountant who knows his embezzlement will soon be discovered. His tame mouse was sitting on his shoulder.

Percy Wetmore was leaning in the doorway of the cell which had just become John Coffey’s. He had taken his hickory baton out of the custom-made holster he carried it in, and was tapping it against one palm the way a man does when he has a toy he wants to use. And all at once I couldn’t stand to have him there. Maybe it was the unseasonable heat, maybe it was the urinary infection heating up my groin and making the itch of my flannel underwear all but unbearable, maybe it was knowing that the state had sent me a black man next door to an idiot to execute, and Percy clearly wanted to hand-tool him a little first. Probably it was all those things. Whatever it was, I stopped caring about his political connections for a little while.

“Percy.” I said. “They’re moving house over in the infirmary.”

“Bill Dodge is in charge of that detail—”

“I know he is,” I said. “Go and help him.”

“That isn’t my job,” Percy said. “This big lugoon is my job.” “Lugoon” was Percy’s joke name for the big ones—a combination of lug and goon. He resented the big ones. He wasn’t skinny, like Harry Terwilliger, but he was short. A banty-rooster sort of guy, the kind that likes to pick fights, especially when the odds are all their way. And vain about his hair. Could hardly keep his hands off it.

“Then your job is done,” I said. “Get over to the infirmary.”

His lower lip pooched out. Bill Dodge and his men were moving boxes and stacks of sheets, even the beds; the whole infirmary was going to a new frame building over on the west side of the prison. Hot work, heavy lifting. Percy Wetmore wanted no part of either.

“They got all the men they need,” he said.

“Then get over there and straw-boss,” I said, raising my voice. I saw Harry wince and paid no attention. If the governor ordered Warden Moores to fire me for ruffling the wrong set of feathers, who was Hal Moores going to put in my place? Percy? It was a joke. “I really don’t care what you do, Percy, as long as you get out of here for awhile!’

For a moment I thought he was going to stick and there’d be real trouble, with Coffey standing there the whole time like the world’s biggest stopped clock. Then Percy rammed his billy back into its hand-tooled holster-foolish damned vanitorious thing—and went stalking up the corridor. I don’t remember which guard was sitting at the duty desk that day-one of the floaters, I guess—but Percy must not have liked the way he looked, because he growled, “You wipe that smirk off your shitepoke face or I’ll wipe it off for you” as he went by. There was a rattle of keys, a momentary blast of hot sunlight from the exercise yard, and then Percy Wetmore was gone, at least for the time being. Delacroix’s mouse ran back and forth from one of the little Frenchman’s shoulders to the other, his filament whiskers twitching.

“Be still, Mr. Jingles,” Delacroix said, and the mouse stopped on his left shoulder just as if he had understood. “Just be so still and so quiet.” In Delacroix’s lilting Cajun accent, quiet came out sounding exotic and foreign—kwaht.

“You go lie down, Del,” I said curtly. “Take you a rest. This is none of your business, either!’

He did as I said. He had raped a young girl and killed her, and had then dropped her body behind the apartment house where she lived, doused it with coal-oil, and then set it on fire, hoping in some muddled way to dispose of the evidence of his crime. The fire had spread to the building itself, had engulfed it, and six more people had died, two of them children. It was the only crime he had in him, and now he was just a mild-mannered man with a worried face, a bald pate, and long hair straggling over the back of his shirt-collar. He would sit down with Old Sparky in a little while, and Old Sparky would make an end to him …but whatever it was that had done that awful thing was already gone, and now he lay on his bunk, letting his little companion run squeaking over his hands. In a way, that was the worst; Old Sparky never burned what was inside them, and the drugs they inject them with today don’t put it to sleep. It vacates, jumps to someone else, and leaves us to kill husks that aren’t really alive anyway.

I turned my attention to the giant.

“If I let Harry take those chains off you, are you going to be nice?”

He nodded. It was like his head-shake: down, up, back to center. His strange eyes looked at me. There was a kind of peace in them, but not a kind I was sure I could trust. I crooked a finger to Harry, who came in and unlocked the chains. He showed no fear now, even when he knelt between Coffey’s treetrunk legs to unlock the ankle irons, and that eased me some. It was Percy who had made Harry nervous, and I trusted Harry’s instincts. I trusted the instincts of all my day-to-day E Block men, except for Percy.

I have a little set speech I make to men new on the block, but I hesitated with Coffey, because he seemed so abnormal, and not just in his size.

When Harry stood back (Coffey had remained motionless during the entire unlocking ceremony, as placid as a Percheron), I looked up at my new charge, tapping on the clipboard with my thumb, and said: “Can you talk, big boy?”

“Yes, sir, boss, I can talk,” he said. His voice was a deep and quiet rumble. It made me think of a freshly tuned tractor engine. He had no real Southern drawl—he said I, not Ah—but there was a kind of Southern construction to his speech that I noticed later. As if he was from the South, but not of it. He didn’t sound illiterate, but he didn’t sound educated. In his speech as in so many other things, he was a mystery. Mostly it was his eyes that troubled me—a kind of peaceful absence in them, as if he were floating far, far away.

“Your name is John Coffey.”

“Yes, sir, boss, like the drink only not spelled the same way.”

“So you can spell, can you? Read and write?”

“Just my name, boss,” said he, serenely.

I sighed, then gave him a short version of my set speech. I’d already decided he wasn’t going to be any trouble. In that I was both right and wrong.

“My name is Paul Edgecombe,” I said. “I’m the E Block super—the head screw. You want something from me, ask for me by name. If I’m not here, ask this other, man—his name is Harry Terwilliger. Or you ask for Mr. Stanton or Mr. Howell. Do you understand that?”

Coffey nodded.

“Just don’t expect to get what you want unless we decide it’s what you need—this isn’t a hotel. Still with me?”

He nodded again.

“This is a quiet place, big boy—not like the rest of the prison. It’s just you and Delacroix over there. You won’t work; mostly you’ll just sit. Give you a chance to think things over.” Too much time for most of them, but I didn’t say that. “Sometimes we play the radio, if all’s in order. You like the radio?”

He nodded, but doubtfully, as if he wasn’t sure what the radio was. I later found out that was true, in a way; Coffey knew things when he encountered them again, but in between he forgot. He knew the characters on Our Gal Sunday, but had only the haziest memory of what they’d been up to the last time.

“If you behave, you’ll eat on time, you’ll never see the solitary cell down at the far end, or have to wear one of those canvas coats that buttons up the back. You’ll have two hours in the yard afternoons from four until six, except on Saturdays when the rest of the prison population has their flag football games. You’ll have your visitors on Sunday afternoons, if you have someone who wants to visit you. Do you, Coffey?”

He shook his head. “Got none, boss,” he said.

“Well, your lawyer, then!’

“I believe I’ve seen the back end of him,” he said. “He was give to me on loan. Don’t believe he could find his way up here in the mountains!’

I looked at him closely to see if he might be trying a little joke, but he didn’t seem to be. And I really hadn’t expected any different. Appeals weren’t for the likes of John Coffey, not back then; they had their day in court and then the world forgot them until they saw a squib in the paper saying a certain fellow had taken a little electricity along about midnight. But a man with a wife, children, or friends to look forward to on Sunday afternoons was easier to control, if control looked to be a problem. Here it didn’t, and that was good. Because he was so damned big.

I shifted a little on the bunk, then decided I might feel a little more comfortable in my nether parts if I stood up, and so I did. He backed away from me respectfully, and clasped his hands in front of him.

“Your time here can be easy or hard, big boy, it all depends on you. I’m here to say you might as well make it easy on all of us, because it comes to the same in the end. We’ll treat you as right as you deserve. Do you have any questions?”

“Do you leave a light on after bedtime?” he asked right away, as if he had only been waiting for the chance.

I blinked at him. I had been asked a lot of strange questions by newcomers to E Block—once about the size of my wife’s tits—but never that one.

Coffey was smiling a trifle uneasily, as if he knew we would think him foolish but couldn’t help himself. “Because I get a little scared in the dark sometimes,” he said. “If it’s a strange place.”

I looked at him—the pure size of him—and felt strangely touched. They did touch you, you know; you didn’t see them at their worst, hammering out their horrors like demons at a forge.

“Yes, it’s pretty bright in here all night long,” I said. “Half the lights along the Mile burn from nine until five every morning.” Then I realized he wouldn’t have any idea of what I was talking about—he didn’t know the Green Mile from Mississippi mud—and so I pointed. “In the corridor.”

He nodded, relieved. I’m not sure he knew what a corridor was, either, but he could see the 200-watt bulbs in their wire cages.

I did something I’d never done to a prisoner before, then—I offered him my hand. Even now I don’t know why. Him asking about the lights, maybe. It made Harry Terwilliger blink, I can tell you that. Coffey took my hand with surprising gentleness, my hand all but disappearing into his, and that was all of it. I had another moth in my killing bottle. We were done.

I stepped out of the cell. Harry pulled the door shut on its track and ran both locks. Coffey stood where he was a moment or two longer, as if he didn’t know what to do next, and then he sat down on his bunk, clasped his giant’s hands between his knees, and lowered his head like a man who grieves or prays. He said something then in his strange, almost Southern voice. I heard it with perfect clarity, and although I didn’t know much about what he’d done then—you don’t need to know about what a man’s done in order to feed him and groom him until it’s time for him to pay off what he owes—it still gave me a chill.

“I couldn’t help it, boss,” he said. “I tried to take it back, but it was too late!’

Chapter 3

3

“You’re going to have you some trouble with Percy,” Harry said as we walked back up the hall and into my office. Dean Stanton, sort of my third in command—we didn’t actually have such things, a situation Percy Wetmore would have fixed up in a flash—was sitting behind my desk, updating the files, a job I never seemed to get around to. He barely looked up as we came in, just gave his little glasses a shove with the ball of his thumb and dived back into his paperwork.

“I been having trouble with that peckerwood since the day he came here,” I said, gingerly, pulling my pants away from my crotch and wincing. “Did you hear what he was shouting when he brought that big galoot down?”

“Couldn’t very well not,” Harry said. “I was there, you know.”

“I was in the john and heard it just fine,” Dean said. He drew a sheet of paper to him, held it up into the light so I could see there was a coffee-ring as well as typing on it, and then tossed it into the waste basket. ’Dead man walking.’ Must have read that in one of those magazines he likes so much!”

And he probably had. Percy Wetmore was a great reader of Argosy and Stag and Men’s Adventure. There was a prison tale in every issue, it seemed, and Percy read them avidly, like a man doing research. It was like he was trying to find out how to act, and thought the information was in those magazines. He’d come just after we did Anthony Ray, the hatchet-killer—and he hadn’t actually participated in an execution yet, although he’d witnessed one from the switch-room.

“He knows people,” Harry said. “He’s connected. You’ll have to answer for sending him off the block, and you’ll have to answer even harder for expecting him to do some real work.”

“I don’t expect it,” I said, and I didn’t …but I had hopes. Bill Dodge wasn’t the sort to let a man just stand around and do the heavy looking-on. “I’m more interested in the big boy, for the time being. Are we going to have trouble with him?”

Harry shook his head with decision.

“He was quiet as a lamb at court down there in Trapingus County,” Dean said. He took his little rimless glasses off and began to polish them on his vest. “Of course they had more chains on him than Scrooge saw on Marley’s ghost, but he could have kicked up dickens if he’d wanted. That’s a pun, son.”

“I know,” I said, although I didn’t. I just hate letting Dean Stanton get the better of me.

“Big one, ain’t he?” Dean said.

“He is,” I agreed. “Monstrous big.”

“Probably have to crank Old Sparky up to Super Bake to fry his ass!’

“Don’t worry about Old Sparky,” I said absently. “He makes the big ’uns little.”

Dean pinched the sides of his nose, where there were a couple of angry red patches from his glasses, and nodded. “Yep,” he said. “Some truth to that, all right.”

I asked, “Do either of you know where he came from before he showed up in …Tefton? It was Tefton, wasn’t it?”

“Yep,” Dean said. “Tefton, down in Trapingus County. Before he showed up there and did what he did, no one seems to know. He just drifted around, I guess. You might be able to find out a little more from the newspapers in the prison library, if you’re really interested. They probably won’t get around to moving those until next week.” He grinned. “You might have to listen to your little buddy bitching and moaning upstairs, though.”

“I might just go have a peek, anyway,” I said, and later on that afternoon I did.

The prison library was in back of the building that was going to become the prison auto shop—at least that was the plan. More pork in someone’s pocket was what I thought, but the Depression was on, and I kept my opinions to myself—the way I should have kept my mouth shut about Percy, but sometimes a man just can’t keep it clapped tight. A man’s mouth gets him in more trouble than his pecker ever could, most of the time. And the auto shop never happened, anyway—the next spring, the prison moved sixty miles down the road to Brighton. More backroom deals, I reckon. More barrels of pork. Wasn’t nothing to me.

Administration had gone to a new building on the east side of the yard; the infirmary was being moved (whose country-bumpkin idea it had been to put an infirmary on the second floor in the first place was just another of life’s mysteries); the library was still partly stocked—not that it ever had much in it—and standing empty. The old building was a hot clapboard box kind of shouldered in between A and B Blocks. Their bathrooms backed up on it and the whole building was always swimming with this vague pissy smell, which was probably the only good reason for the move. The library was L-shaped, and not much bigger than my office. I looked for a fan, but they were all gone. It must have been a hundred degrees in there, and I could feel that hot throb in my groin when I sat down. Sort of like an infected tooth. I know that’s absurd, considering the region we’re talking about here, but it’s the only thing I could compare it to. It got a lot worse during and just after taking a leak, which I had done just before walking over.

There was one other fellow there after all—a scrawny old trusty named Gibbons dozing away in the corner with a Wild West novel in his lap and his hat pulled down over his eyes. The heat wasn’t bothering him, nor were the grunts, thumps, and occasional curses from the infirmary upstairs (where it had to be at least ten degrees hotter, and I hoped Percy Wetmore was enjoying it). I didn’t bother him, either, but went around to the short side of the L, where the newspapers were kept. I thought they might be gone along with the fans, in spite of what Dean had said. They weren’t, though, and the business about the Detterick twins was easily enough looked out; it had been front-page news from the commission of the crime in June right through the trial in late August and September.

Soon I had forgotten the heat and the thumps from upstairs and old Gibbons’s wheezy snores. The thought of those little nine-year-old girls—their fluffy heads of blonde hair and their engaging Bobbsey Twins smiles—in connection with Coffey’s hulking darkness was unpleasant but impossible to ignore. Given his size, it was easy to imagine him actually eating them, like a giant in a fairy tale. What he had done was even worse, and it was a lucky thing for him that he hadn’t just been lynched right there on the riverbank. If, that was, you considered waiting to walk the Green Mile and sit in Old Sparky’s lap lucky.

Chapter 4

4

King Cotton had been deposed in the South seventy years before all these things happened and would never be king again, but in those years of the thirties it had a little revival. There were no more cotton plantations, but there were forty or fifty prosperous cotton farms in the southern part of our state. Klaus Detterick owned one of them. By the standards of the nineteen-fifties he would have been considered only a rung above shirttail poor, but by those of the thirties he was considered well-to-do because he actually paid his store bill in cash at the end of most months, and he could meet the bank president’s eyes if they happened to pass on the street. The farmhouse was clean and commodious. In addition to the cotton, there were the other two c’s: chickens and a few cows. He and his wife had three children: Howard. who was twelve or thereabouts, and the twin girls. Cora and Kathe.

On a warm night in June of that year, the girls asked for and were given permission to sleep on the screen-enclosed side porch, which ran the length of the house. This was a great treat for them. Their mother kissed them goodnight just shy of nine, when the last light had gone out of the sky. It was the final time she saw either of them until they were in their coffins and the undertaker had repaired the worst of the damage.

Country families went to bed early in those days—“soon as ’twas dark under the table,” my own mother sometimes said—and slept soundly. Certainly Klaus, Marjorie, and Howie Detterick did on the night the twins were taken. Klaus would almost certainly have been wakened by Bowser, the family’s big old half-breed collie, if he had barked, but Bowser didn’t. Not that night, not ever again.

Klaus was up at first light to do the milking. The porch was on the side of the house away from the barn, and Klaus never thought to look in on the girls. Bowser’s failure to join him was no cause for alarm, either. The dog held the cows and the chickens alike in great disdain, and usually hid in his doghouse behind the barn when the chores were being performed, unless called …and called energetically, at that.

Marjorie came downstairs fifteen minutes or so after her husband had pulled on his boots in the mudroom and tromped out to the barn. She started the coffee, then put bacon on to fry. The combined smells brought Howie down from his room under the eaves, but not the girls from the porch. She sent Howie out to fetch them as she cracked eggs into the bacon grease. Klaus would want the girls out to get fresh ones as soon as breakfast was over. Except no breakfast was eaten in the Detterick house that morning. Howie came back from the porch, white around the gills and with his formerly sleep-puffy eyes now wide open.

“They’re gone,” he said.

Marjorie went out onto the porch, at first more annoyed than alarmed. She said later that she had supposed, if she had supposed anything, that the girls had decided to take a walk and pick flowers by the dawn’s early light. That or some similar green-girl foolishness. One look, and she understood why Howie had been white.

She screamed for Klaus—shrieked for him—and Klaus came on the dead run, his workboots whitened by the half-full pail of milk he had spilled on them. What he found on the porch would have jellied the legs of the most courageous parent. The blankets in which the girls would have bundled themselves as the night drew on and grew colder had been cast into one comer. The screen door had been yanked off its upper hinge and hung drunkenly out into the dooryard. And on the boards of both the porch and the steps beyond the mutilated screen door, there were spatters of blood.

Marjorie begged her husband not to go hunting after the girls alone, and not to take their son if he felt he had to go after them, but she could have saved her breath. He took the shotgun he kept mounted in the mudroom high out of the reach of little hands, and gave Howie the .22 they had been saving for his birthday in July. Then they went, neither of them paying the slightest attention to the shrieking, weeping woman who wanted to know what they would do if they met a gang of wandering hobos or a bunch of bad niggers escaped from the county farm over in Laduc. In this I think the men were right, you know. The blood was no longer runny, but it was only tacky yet, and still closer to true red than the maroon that comes when blood has well dried. The abduction hadn’t happened too long ago. Klaus must have reasoned that there was still a chance for his girls, and he meant to take it.

Neither one of them could track worth a damn—they were gatherers, not hunters, men who went into the woods after coon and deer in their seasons not because they much wanted to, but because it was an expected thing. And the dooryard around the house was a blighted patch of dirt with tracks all overlaid in a meaningless tangle. They went around the barn, and saw almost at once why Bowser, a bad biter but a good barker, hadn’t sounded the alarm. He lay half in and half out of a doghouse which had been built of leftover barnboards (there was a signboard with the word Bowser neatly printed on it over the curved hole in the front—I saw a photograph of it in one of the papers), his head turned most of the way around on his neck. It would have taken a man of enormous power to have done that to such a big animal, the prosecutor later told John Coffey’s jury …and then he had looked long and meaningfully at the hulking defendant, sitting behind the defense table with his eyes cast down and wearing a brand-new pair of state-bought big overalls that looked like damnation in and of themselves. Beside the dog, Klaus and Howie found a scrap of cooked link sausage. The theory—a sound one, I have no doubt—was that Coffey had first charmed the dog with treats, and then, as Bowser began to eat the last one, had reached out his hands and broken its neck with one mighty snap of his wrists.

Beyond the barn was Detterick’s north pasture, where no cows would graze that day. It was drenched with morning dew, and leading off through it, cutting on a diagonal to the northwest and plain as day, was the beaten track of a man’s passage.

Even in his state of near-hysteria, Klaus Detterick hesitated at first to follow it. It wasn’t fear of the man or men who had taken his daughters; it was fear of following the abductor’s backtrail …of going off in exactly the wrong direction at a time when every second might count.

Howie solved that dilemma by plucking a shred of yellow cotton cloth from a bush growing just beyond the edge of the dooryard. Klaus was shown this same scrap of cloth as he sat on the witness stand, and began to weep as he identified it as a piece of his daughter Kathe’s sleeping-shorts. Twenty yards beyond it, hanging from the jutting finger of a juniper shrub, they found a piece of faded green cloth that matched the nightie Cora had been wearing when she kissed her ma and pa goodnight.

The Dettericks, father and son, set off at a near-run with their guns held in front of them, as soldiers do when crossing contested ground under heavy fire. If I wonder at anything that happened that day. it is that the boy, chasing desperately after his father (and often in danger of being left behind completely), never fell and put a bullet in Klaus Detterick’s back.

The farmhouse was on the exchange—another sign to the neighbors that the Dettericks were prospering, at least moderately, in disastrous times—and Marjorie used Central to call as many of her neighbors that were also on the exchange as she could, telling them of the disaster which had fallen like a lightning-stroke out of a clear sky, knowing that each call would produce overlapping ripples, like pebbles tossed rapidly into a stilly pond. Then she lifted the handset one last time, and spoke those words that were almost a trademark of the early telephone systems of that time, at least in the rural South: “Hello, Central, are you on the line?”

Central was, but for a moment could say nothing, that worthy woman was all agog. At last she managed, “Yes, ma’am. Mrs. Detterick, I sure am, oh dear sweet blessed Jesus, I’m a-prayin right now that your little girls are all right—!’

“Yes, thank you,” Marjorie said. “But you tell the Lord to wait long enough for you to put me through to the high sheriff’s office down Tefton, all right?”

The Trapingus County high sheriff was a whiskeynosed old boy with a gut like a washtub and a head of white hair so fine it looked like pipe-cleaner fuzz. I knew him well; he’d been up to Cold Mountain plenty of times to see what he called “his boys” off into the great beyond. Execution witnesses sat in the same folding chairs you’ve probably sat in yourself a time or two, at funerals or church suppers or Grange bingo (in fact, we borrowed ours from the Mystic Tie No. 44 Grange back in those days), and every time Sheriff Homer Cribus sat down in one, I waited for the dry crack that would signal collapse. I dreaded that day and hoped for it, both at the same time, but it was a day that never came. Not long after —couldn’t have been more than one summer after the Detterick girls were abducted—he had a heart attack in his office, apparently while screwing a seventeen year-old black girl named Daphne Shurtleff. There was a lot of talk about that, with him always sporting his wife and six boys around so prominent come election time—those were the days when, if you wanted to run for something, the saying used to be “Be Baptist or be gone.” But people love a hypocrite, you know—they recognize one of their own, and it always feels so good when someone gets caught with his pants down and his dick up and it isn’t you. Besides being a hypocrite, he was incompetent, the kind of fellow who’d get himself photographed pet that point, running southeast through low, wooded hills where families named Cray and Robinette and Duplissey still made their own mandolins and often spat out their own rotted teeth as they plowed; deep countryside where men were apt to handle snakes on Sunday morning and lie down in carnal embrace with their daughters on Sunday night. I knew their families; most of them had sent Sparky a meal from time to time. On the far side of the river, the members of the posse could see the June sun glinting off the steel rails of a Great Southern branch line. About a mile downstream to their right, a trestle crossed toward the coal-fields of West Green.

Here they found a wide trampled patch in the grass and low bushes, a patch so bloody that many of the men had to sprint back into the woods and relieve themselves of their breakfasts. They also found the rest of Cora’s nightgown lying in this bloody patch, and Howie, who had held up admirably until then, reeled back against his father and nearly fainted.

And it was here that Bobo Marchant’s dogs had their first and only disagreement of the day. There were six in all, two bloodhounds, two bluetick hounds, and a couple of those terrierlike mongrels border Southerners call coon hounds. The coonies wanted to go northwest, upstream along the Trapingus; the rest wanted to go in the other direction, southeast. They got all tangled in their leads, and although the papers said nothing about this part, I could imagine the horrible curses Bobo must have rained down on them as he used his hands—surely the most educated part of him—to get them straightened around again. I have known a few hound-dog men in my time, and it’s been my experience that, as a class, they run remarkably true to type.

Bobo shortleashed them into a pack, then ran Cora Detterick’s torn nightgown under their noses, to kind of remind them what they were doing out on a day when the temperature would be in the mid-nineties by noon and the noseeums were already circling the heads of the possemen in clouds. The coonies took another sniff, decided to vote the straight ticket, and off they all went downstream, in full cry.

It wasn’t but ten minutes later when the men stopped, realizing they could hear more than just the dogs. It was a howling rather than a baying, and a sound no dog had ever made, not even in its dying extremities. It was a sound none of them had ever heard anything make, but they knew right away, all of them, that it was a man. So they said, and I believed them. I think I would have recognized it, too. I have heard men scream just that way, I think, on their way to the electric chair. Not a lot—most button themselves up and go either quiet or joking, like it was the class picnic—but a few. Usually the ones who believe in hell as a real place, and know it is waiting for them at the end of the Green Mile.

Bobo shortleashed his dogs again. They were valuable, and he had no intention of losing them to the psychopath howling and gibbering just down yonder. The other men reloaded their guns and snapped them closed. That howling had chilled them all, and made the sweat under their arms and running down their backs feel like icewater. When men take a chill like that, they need a leader if they are to go on, and Deputy McGee led them. He got out in front and walked briskly (I bet he didn’t feel very brisk right then, though) to a stand of alders that jutted out of the woods on the right, with the rest of them trundling along nervously about five paces behind. He paused just once, and that was to motion the biggest man among them—Sam Hollis—to keep near Klaus Detterick.

On the other side of the alders there was more open ground stretching back to the woods on the right. On the left was the long, gentle slope of the riverbank. They all stopped where they were, thunderstruck. I think they would have given a good deal to unsee what was before them, and none of them would ever forget it—it was the sort of nightmare, bald and almost smoking in the sun, that lies beyond the drapes and furnishings of good and ordinary lives—church suppers, walks along country lanes, honest work, love-kisses in bed. There is a skull in every man, and I tell you there is a skull in the lives of all men. They saw it that day, those men—they saw what sometimes grins behind the smile.

Sitting on the riverbank in a faded, bloodstained jumper was the biggest man any of them had ever seen John Coffey. His enormous, splay-toed feet were bare. On his head he wore a faded red bandanna, the way a country woman would wear a kerchief into church. Gnats circled him in a black cloud. Curled in each arm was the body of a naked girl. Their blonde hair, once curly and light as milkweed fluff, was now matted to their heads and streaked red. The man holding them sat bawling up at the sky like a moonstruck calf, his dark brown cheeks slicked with tears, his face twisted in a monstrous cramp of grief He drew breath in hitches, his chest rising until the snaps holding the straps of his jumper were strained, and then let that vast catch of air out in another of those howls. So often you read in the paper that “the killer showed no remorse,” but that wasn’t the case here. John Coffey was torn open by what he had done …but he would live. The girls would not. They had been torn open in a more fundamental way.

No one seemed to know how long they stood there, looking at the howling man who was, in his turn, looking across the great still plate of the river at a train on the other side, storming down the tracks toward the trestle that crossed the river. It seemed they looked for an hour or for forever, and yet the train got no farther along, it seemed to storm only in one place, like a child doing a tantrum, and the sun did not go behind a cloud, and the sight was not blotted from their eyes. It was there before them, as real as a dogbite. The black man rocked back and forth; Cora and Kathe rocked with him like dolls in the arms of a giant. The bloodstained muscles in the man’s huge, bare arms flexed and relaxed, flexed and relaxed, flexed and relaxed.

It was Klaus Detterick who broke the tableau. Screaming, he flung himself at the monster who had raped and killed his daughters. Sam Hollis knew his job and tried to do it, but couldn’t. He was six inches taller than Klaus and outweighed him by at least seventy pounds, but Klaus seemed to almost shrug his encircling arms off. Klaus flew across the intervening open ground and launched a flying kick at Coffey’s head. His workboot, caked with spilled milk that had already soured in the heat, scored a direct hit on Coffey’s left temple, but Coffey seemed not to feel it at all. He only sat there, keening and rocking and looking out across the river; the way I imagine it, he could almost have been a picture out of some piney woods Pentecostal sermon, the faithful follower of the Cross looking out toward Goshen Land …if not for the corpses, that was.

It took four men to haul the hysterical farmer off John Coffey, and he fetched Coffey I don’t know how many good licks before they finally did. It didn’t seem to matter to Coffey, one way or the other; he just went on looking out across the river and keening. As for Detterick, all the fight went out of him when he was finally pulled off—as if some strange galvanizing current had been running through the huge black man (I still have a tendency to think in electrical metaphors; you’ll have to pardon me), and when Detterick’s contact with that power source was finally broken, he went as limp as a man flung back from a live wire. He knelt wide-legged on the riverbank with his hands to his face, sobbing. Howie joined him and they hugged each other forehead to forehead.

Two men watched them while the rest formed a rifle-toting ring around the rocking, wailing black man. He still seemed not to realize that anyone but him was there. McGee stepped forward, shifted uncertainly from foot to foot for a bit, then hunkered.

“Mister,” he said in a quiet voice, and Coffey hushed at once. McGee looked at eyes that were bloodshot from crying. And still they streamed, as if someone had left a faucet on inside him. Those eyes wept, and yet were somehow untouched …distant and serene. I thought them the strangest eyes I had ever seen in my life, and McGee felt much the same. “Like the eyes of an animal that never saw a man before,” he told a reporter named Hammersmith just before the trial.

“Mister, do you hear me?” McGee asked.

Slowly, Coffey nodded his head. Still he curled his arms around his unspeakable dolls, their chins down on their chests so their faces could not be clearly seen, one of the few mercies God saw fit to bestow that day.

“Do you have a name?” MeGee asked.

“John Coffey,” he said in a thick and tear-clotted voice. “Coffey like the drink, only not spelled the same way.”

McGee nodded, then pointed a thumb at the chest pocket of Coffey’s jumper, which was bulging. It looked to McGee like it might have been a gun—not that a man Coffey’s size would need a gun to do some major damage, if he decided to go off. “What’s that in there, John Coffey? Is that maybe a heater? A pistol?”

“Nosir,” Coffey said in his thick voice, and those strange eyes—welling tears and agonized on top, distant and weirdly serene underneath, as if the true John Coffey was somewhere else, looking out on some other landscape where murdered little girls were nothing to get all worked up about—never left Deputy McGee’s. “That’s just a little lunch I have.”

“Oh, now, a little lunch, is that right?” McGee asked, and Coffey nodded and said yessir with his eyes running and dear snot-runners hanging out of his nose. “And where did the likes of you get a little lunch, John Coffey?” Forcing himself to be calm, although he could smell the girls by then, and could see the flies lighting and sampling the places on them that were wet. It was their hair that was the worst, he said later …and this wasn’t in any newspaper story; it was considered too grisly for family reading. No, this I got from the reporter who wrote the story, Mr. Hammersmith. I looked him up later on, because later on John Coffey became sort of an obsession with me. McGee told this Hammersmith that their blonde hair wasn’t blonde anymore. It was auburn. Blood had run down their cheeks out of it like it was a bad dye-job, and you didn’t have to be a doctor to see that their fragile skulls had been dashed together with the force of those mighty arms. Probably they had been crying. Probably he had wanted to make them stop. If the girls had been lucky, this had happened before the rapes.

Looking at that made it hard for a man to think, even a man as determined to do his job as Deputy McGee was. Bad thinking could cause mistakes, maybe more bloodshed. McGee drew him in a deep breath and calmed himself. Tried, anyway.

“Wellsir, I don’t exactly remember, be dog if I do,” Coffey said in his tear-choked voice, “but it’s a little lunch, all right, sammidges and I think a swee’ pickle.”

I might just have a look for myself, it’s all the same to you,” McGee said. “Don’t you move now, John Coffey. Don’t do it, boy, because there are enough guns aimed at you to make you disappear from the waist up should you so much as twitch a finger.”

Coffey looked out across the river and didn’t move as McGee gently reached into the chest pocket of those biballs and pulled out something wrapped in newspaper and tied with a hank of butcher’s twine. MeGee snapped the string and opened the paper, although he was pretty sure it was just what Coffey said it was, a little lunch. There was a bacon-tomato sandwich and a jelly fold-over. There was also a pickle, wrapped in its own piece of a funny page John Coffey would never be able to puzzle out. There were no sausages. Bowser had gotten the sausages out of John Coffey’s little lunch.

McGee handed the lunch back over his shoulder to one of the other men without taking his eyes off Coffey. Hunkered down like that, he was too close to want to let his attention stray for even a second. The lunch, wrapped up again and tied for good measure, finally ended up with Bobo Marchant, who put it in his knapsack, where he kept treats for his dogs (and a few fishing lures, I shouldn’t wonder). It wasn’t introduced into evidence at the trial—justice in this part of the world is swift, but not as swift as a bacon-tomato sandwich goes over—though photographs of it were.

“What happened here, John Coffey?” McGee asked in his low, earnest voice. “You want to tell me that?”

And Coffey said to McGee and the others almost exactly the same thing he said to me; they were also the last words the prosecutor said to the jury at Coffey’s trial. “I couldn’t help it,” John Coffey said, holding the murdered, violated girls naked in his arms. The tears began to pour down his cheeks again. “I tried to take it back, but it was too late!’

“Boy, you are under arrest for murder,” McGee said, and then he spit in John Coffey’s face.

The jury was out forty-five minutes. Just about time enough to eat a little lunch of their own. I wonder they had any stomach for it.

Chapter 5

5

I think you know I didn’t find all that out during one hot October afternoon in the soon-to-be-defunct prison library, from one set of old newspapers stacked in a pair of Pomona orange crates, but I learned enough to make it hard for me to sleep that night. When my wife got up at two in the morning and found me sitting in the kitchen, drinking buttermilk and smoking home-rolled Bugler, she asked me what was wrong and I lied to her for one of the few times in the long course of our marriage. I said I’d had another run-in with Percy Wetmore. I had, of course, but that wasn’t the reason she’d found me sitting up late. I was usually able to leave Percy at the office.

“Well, forget that rotten apple and come on back to bed,” she said. “I’ve got something that’ll help you sleep, and you can have all you want.”

“That sounds good, but I think we’d better not,” I said. “I’ve got a little something wrong with my waterworks, and wouldn’t want to pass it on to you.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Waterworks, huh,” she said. “I guess you must have taken up with the wrong streetcorner girl the last time you were in Baton Rouge.” I’ve never been in Baton Rouge and never so much as touched a streetcorner girl, and we both knew it.

“It’s just a plain old urinary infection,” I said. “My mother used to say boys got them from taking a leak when the north wind was blowing.”

“Your mother also used to stay in all day if she spilled the salt,” my wife said. “Dr Sadler—”

“No, sir,” I said, raising my hand. “He’ll want me to take sulfa, and I’ll be throwing up in every comer of my office by the end of the week. It’ll run its course, but in the meantime, I guess we best stay out of the playground.”

She kissed my forehead right over my left eyebrow, which always gives me the prickles …as Janice well knew. “Poor baby. As if that awful Percy Wetmore wasn’t enough. Come to bed soon!’

I did, but before I did, I stepped out onto the back porch to empty out (and checked the wind direction with a wet thumb before I did—what our parents tell us when we are small seldom goes ignored, no matter how foolish it may be). Peeing outdoors is one joy of country living the poets never quite got around to, but it was no joy that night; the water coming out of me burned like a line of lit coal-oil. Yet I thought it had been a little worse that afternoon, and knew it had been worse the two or three days before. I had hopes that maybe I had started to mend. Never was a hope more ill-founded. No one had told me that sometimes a bug that gets up inside there, where it’s warm and wet, can take a day or two off to rest before coming on strong again. I would have been surprised to know it. I would have been even more surprised to know that, in another fifteen or twenty years, there would be pills you could take that would smack that sort of infection out of your system in record time …and while those pills might make you feel a little sick at your stomach or loose in your bowels, they almost never made you vomit the way Dr. Sadler’s sulfa pills did. Back in ’32, there wasn’t much you could do but wait, and try to ignore that feeling that someone had spilled coal-oil inside your works and then touched a match to it.

I finished my butt, went into the bedroom, and finally got to sleep. I dreamed of girls with shy smiles and blood in their hair.

Chapter 6

6

The next morning there was a pink memo slip on my desk, asking me to stop by the warden’s office as soon as I could. I knew what that was about—there were unwritten but very important rules to the game, and I had stopped playing by them for awhile yesterday—and so I put it off as long as possible. Like going to the doctor about my waterworks problem, I suppose. I’ve always thought this “get-it-over-with” business was overrated.

Anyway, I didn’t hurry to Warden Moores’s office. I stripped off my wool uniform coat instead, hung it over the back of my chair, and turned on the fan in the corner—it was another hot one. Then I sat down and went over Brutus Howell’s night-sheet. There was nothing there to get alarmed about. Delacroix had wept briefly after turning in—he did most nights, and more for himself than for the folks he had roasted alive, I am quite sure—and then had take Mr. Jingles, the mouse, out of the cigar box he slept in. That had calmed Del, and he had slept like a baby the rest of the night. Mr. Jingles had most likely spent it on Delacroix’s stomach, with his tail curled over his paws, eyes unblinking. It was as if God had decided Delacroix needed a guardian angel, but had decreed in His wisdom that only a mouse would do for a rat like our homicidal friend from Louisiana. Not all that was in Brutal’s report, of course, but I had done enough night watches myself to fill in the stuff between the lines. There was a brief note about Coffey: “Laid awake, mostly quiet, may have cried some. I tried to get some talk started, but after a few grunted replies from Coffey, gave up. Paul or Harry may have better luck.”

“Getting the talk started” was at the center of our job, really. I didn’t know it then, but looking back from the vantage point of this strange old age (I think all old ages seem strange to the folk who must endure them), I understand that it was, and why I didn’t see it then—it was too big, as central to our work as our respiration was to our lives. It wasn’t important that the floaters be good at “getting the talk started,” but it was vital for me and Harry and Brutal and Dean…and it was one reason why Percy Wetmore was such a disaster. The inmates hated him, the guards hated him …everyone hated him, presumably, except for his political connections, Percy himself, and maybe (but only maybe) his mother. He was like a dose of white arsenic sprinkled into a wedding cake, and I think I knew he spelled disaster the start. He was an accident waiting to happen. As for the rest of us, we would have scoffed at the idea that we functioned most usefully not as the guards of the condemned but as their psychiatrists part of me still wants to scoff at that idea today—but we knew about getting the talk started …and without the talk, men facing Old Sparky had a nasty habit of going insane.

I made a note at the bottom of Brutal’s report to talk to John Coffey—to try, at least—and then passed on to a note from Curtis Anderson, the warden’s chief assistant. It said that he, Anderson, expected a DOE order for Edward Delacrois (Anderson’s misspelling; the man’s name was actually Eduard Delacroix) very soon. DOE stood for date of execution, and according to the note, Curtis had been told on good authority that the little Frenchman would take the walk shortly before Halloween—October 27th was his best guess, and Curtis Anderson’s guesses were very informed. But before then we could expect a new resident, name of William Wharton. “He’s what you like to call ’a problem child,’ “ Curtis had written ’ in his backslanting and somehow prissy script. “Crazy-wild and proud of it. Has rambled all over the state for the last year or so, and has hit the big time at last. Killed three people in a holdup, one a pregnant woman, killed a fourth in the getaway. State Patrolman. All he missed was a nun and a blind man!’ I smiled a little at that. “Wharton is 19 years old, has Billy the Kid tattooed on upper l. forearm. You will have to slap his nose a time or two, I guarantee you that, but be careful when you do it. This man just doesn’t care.” He had underlined this last sentiment twice, then finished: “Also, he may be a hang-arounder. He’s working appeals, and there’s the fact that he is a minor.”

A crazy kid, working appeals, apt to be around for awhile. Oh, that all sounded just fine. Suddenly the day seemed hotter than ever, and I could no longer put off seeing Warden Moores.

I worked for three wardens during my years as a Cold Mountain guard; Hal Moores was the last and best of them. In a walk. Honest, straightforward, lacking even Curtis Anderson’s rudimentary wit, but equipped with just enough political savvy to keep his job during those grim years …and enough integrity to keep from getting seduced by the game. He would not rise any higher, but that seemed all right with him. He was fifty-eight or -nine back then, with a deeply lined bloodhound face that Bobo Marchant probably would have felt right at home with. He had white hair and his hands shook with some sort of palsy, but he was strong. The year before, when a prisoner had rushed him in the exercise yard with a shank whittled out of a crate-slat, Moores had stood his ground, grabbed the skatehound’s wrist, and had twisted it so hard that the snapping bones had sounded like dry twigs burning in a hot fire. The skatehound, all his grievances forgotten, had gone down on his knees in the dirt and begun screaming for his mother. “I’m not her,” Moores said in his cultured Southern voice, “But if I was, I’d raise up my skirts and piss on you from the loins that gave you birth.”

When I came into his office, he started to get up and I waved him back down. I took the seat across the desk from him, and began by asking about his wife …except in our part of the world, that’s not how you do it. “How’s that pretty gal of yours” is what I asked, as if Melinda had seen only seventeen summers instead of sixty-two or -three. My concern was genuine he was a woman I could have loved and married myself, if the lines of our lives had coincided—but I didn’t mind diverting him a little from his main business, either.

He sighed deeply. “Not so well, Paul. Not so well at all.”

“More headaches?”

“Only one this week, but it was the worst yet—put her flat on her back for most of the day before yesterday. And now she’s developed this weakness in her right hand—” He raised his own liverspotted right hand. We both watched it tremble above his blotter for a moment or two, and then he lowered it again. I could tell he would have given just about anything not to be telling me what he was telling me, and I would have given just about anything not to be hearing it. Melinda’s headaches had started in the spring, and all that summer her doctor had been saying they were “nervous-tension migraines,” perhaps caused by the stress of Hal’s coming retirement. Except that neither of them could wait for his retirement, and my own wife had told me that migraine is not a disease of the old but the young; by the time its sufferers reached Melinda Moores’s age, they were usually getting better, not worse. And now this weakness of the hand. It didn’t sound like nervous tension to me; it sounded like a damned stroke.

“Dr. Haverstrom wants her to go in hospital up to Indianola,” Moores said. “Have some tests. Head X-rays, he means. Who knows what else. She is scared to death!’ He paused, then added, “Truth to tell, so am I.”

“Yeah, but you see she does it,” I said. “Don’t wait. If it turns out to be something they can see with an X-ray, it may turn out to be something they can fix.”

“Yes,” he agreed, and then, for just a moment—the only one during that part of our interview, as I recall our eyes met and locked. There was the sort of nakedly perfect understanding between us that needs no words. It could be a stroke, yes. It could also be a cancer growing in her brain, and if it was that, the chances that the doctors at Indianola could do anything about it were slim going on none. This was ’32, remember, when even something as relatively simple as a urinary infection was either sulfa and stink or suffer and wait.

“I thank you for your concern, Paul. Now let’s talk about Percy Wetmore!’

I groaned and covered my eyes.

“I had a call from the state capital this morning,” the warden said evenly. “It was quite an angry call, as I’m sure you can imagine. Paul, the governor is so married he’s almost not there, if you take my meaning. And his wife has a brother who has one child. That child is Percy Wetmore. Percy called his dad last night, and Percy’s dad called Percy’s aunt. Do I have to trace the rest of this out for you?”

“No,” I said. “Percy squealed. Just like the schoolroom sissy telling teacher he saw Jack and Jill smooching in the cloakroom.”

“Yep,” Moores agreed, “that’s about the size of it.”

“You know what happened between Percy and Delacroix when Delacroix came in?” I asked. “Percy and his damned hickory billy-club?”

“Yes, but—“

“And you know how he runs it along the bars sometimes, just for the pure hell of it. He’s mean, and he’s stupid, and I don’t know how much longer I can take him. That’s the truth.”

We’d known each other five years. That can be a long time for men who get on well, especially when part of the job is trading life for death. What I’m saying is that he understood what I meant. Not that I would quit; not with the Depression walking around outside the prison walls like a dangerous criminal, one that couldn’t be caged as our charges were. Better men than me were out on the roads or riding the rods. I was lucky and knew it—children grown and the mortgage, that two-hundred-pound block of marble, had been off my chest for the last two years. But a man’s got to eat, and his wife has to eat, too. Also, we were used to sending our daughter and son-in-law twenty bucks whenever we could afford it (and sometimes when we couldn’t, if Jane’s letters sounded particularly desperate). He was an out-of-work high-school teacher, and if that didn’t qualify for desperate back in those days, then the word had no meaning. So no, you didn’t walk off a steady paycheck job like mine …not in cold blood, that was. But my blood wasn’t cold that fall. The temperatures outside were unseasonable, and the infection crawling around inside me had turned the thermostat up even more. And when a man’s in that kind of situation, why, sometimes his fist flies out pretty much of its own accord. And if you slug a connected man like Percy Wetmore once, you might as well just go right on slugging, because there’s no going back.

“Stick with it,” Moores said quietly. “That’s what I called you in here to say. I have it on good authority the person who called me this morning, in fact—that Percy has an application in at Briar, and that his application will be accepted.”

“Briar,” I said. That was Briar Ridge, one of two state-run hospitals. ’What’s this kid doing? Touring state facilities?”

“It’s an administration job. Better pay, and papers to push instead of hospital beds in the heat of the day.” He gave me a slanted grin. “You know, Paul, you might be shed of him already if you hadn’t put him in the switch-room with Van Hay when The Chief walked.”

For a moment what he said seemed so peculiar I didn’t have a clue what he was getting at. Maybe I didn’t want to have a clue.

“Where else would I put him?” I asked. “Christ, he hardly knows what he’s doing on the block! To make him part of the active execution team—“ I didn’t finish. Couldn’t finish. The potential for screw-ups seemed endless.

“Nevertheless, you’d do well to put him out for Delacroix. If you want to get rid of him, that is.”

I looked at him with my jaw hung. At last I was able to get it up where it belonged so I could talk. “What are you saying? That he wants to experience one right up close where he can smell the guy’s nuts cooking?”

Moores shrugged. His eyes, so soft when he had been speaking about his wife, now looked flinty. “Delacroix’s nuts are going to cook whether Wetmore’s on the team or not,” he said. “Correct?”

“Yes, but he could screw up. In fact, Hal, he’s almost bound to screw up. And in front of thirty or so witnesses …reporters all the way up from Louisiana…”

“You and Brutus Howell will make sure he doesn’t,” Moores said. “And if he does anyway, it goes on his record, and it’ll still be there long after his statehouse connections are gone. You understand?”

I did. It made me feel sick and scared, but I did.

“He may want to stay for Coffey, but if we’re lucky, he’ll get all he needs from Delacroix. You just make sure you put him out for that one.”

I had planned to stick Percy in the switch-room again, then down in the tunnel, riding shotgun on the gurney that would take Delacroix to the meatwagon parked across the road from the prison, but I tossed all those plans back over my shoulder without so much as a second look. I nodded. I had the sense to know it was a gamble I was taking, but I didn’t care. If it would get rid of Percy Wetmore, I’d tweak the devil’s nose. He could take part in his execution, clamp on the cap, and then look through the grille and tell Van Hay to roll on two; he could watch the little Frenchman ride the lightning that he, Percy Wetmore, had let out of the bottle. Let him have his nasty little thrill, if that’s what state-sanctioned murder was to him. Let him go on to Briar Ridge, where he would have his own office and a fan to cool it. And if his uncle by marriage was voted out of office in the next election and he had to find out what work was like in the tough old sunbaked world where not all the bad guys were locked behind bars and sometimes you got your own head whipped, so much the better.

“All right,” I said, standing up. “I’ll put him out front for Delacroix. And in the meantime, I’ll keep the peace.”

“Good,” he said, and stood up himself. “By the way, how’s that problem of yours?” He pointed delicately in the direction of my groin.

“Seems a little better.”

“Well, that’s fine.” He saw me to the door. “What about Coffey, by the way? Is he going to be a problem?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “So far he’s been as quiet as a dead rooster. He’s strange—strange eyes—but quiet. We’ll keep tabs on him, though. Don’t worry about that!”

“You know what he did, of course.”

“Sure.”

He was seeing me through to the outer office by then, where old Miss Hannah sat bashing away at her Underwood as she had ever since the last ice age had ended, it seemed. I was happy to go. All in all, I felt as if I’d gotten off easy. And it was nice to know there was a chance of surviving Percy, after all.

“You send Melinda a whole basket of my love,” I said. “And don’t go buying you an extra crate of trouble, either. It’ll probably turn out to be nothing but migraine, after all.”

“You bet,” he said, and below his sick eyes, his lips smiled. The combination was damned near ghoulish.

As for me, I went back to E Block to start another day. There was paperwork to be read and written, there were floors to be mopped, there were meals to be served, a duty roster to be made out for the following week, there were a hundred details to be seen to. But mostly there was waiting—in prison there’s always plenty of that, so much it never gets done. Waiting for Eduard Delacroix to walk the Green Mile, waiting for William Wharton to arrive with his curled lip and Billy the Kid tattoo, and, most of all, waiting for Percy Wetmore to be gone out of my life.

Chapter 7

7

Delacroix’s mouse was one of God’s mysteries. I never saw one in E Block before that summer, and never saw one after that fall, when Delacroix passed from our company on a hot and thundery night in October—passed from it in a manner so unspeakable I can barely bring myself to recall it. Delacroix claimed that he trained that mouse, which started its life among us as Steamboat Willy, but I really think it was the other way around. Dean Stanton felt the same way, and so did Brutal. Both of them were there the night the mouse put in its first appearance, and as Brutal said, “The thing ’us half-tame already, and twice as smart as that Cajun what thought he owned it.”

Dean and I were in my office, going over the record-box for the last year, getting ready to write follow-up letters to witnesses of five executions, and to write follow-ups to follow-ups in another six stretching all the way back to ’29. Basically, we wanted to know just one thing: were they pleased with the service? I know it sounds grotesque, but it was an important consideration. As taxpayers they were our customers, but very special ones. A man or a woman who will turn out at midnight to watch a man die has got a special, pressing reason to be there, a special need, and if execution is a proper punishment, then that need ought to be satisfied. They’ve had a nightmare. The purpose of the execution is to show them that the nightmare is over. Maybe it even works that way. Sometimes.

“Hey!” Brutal called from outside the door, where he was manning the desk at the head of the hall. “Hey, you two! Get out here!”

Dean and I gazed at each other with identical expressions of alarm, thinking that something had happened to either the Indian from Oklahoma (his name was Arlen Bitterbuck, but we called him The Chief …or, in Harry Terwilliger’s case, Chief Coat Cheese, because that was what Harry claimed Bitterbuck smelled like), or the fellow we called The President. But then Brutal started to laugh, and we hurried to see what was happening. Laughing in E Block sounded almost as wrong as laughing in church.

Old Toot-Toot, the trusty who ran the food-wagon in those days, had been by with his holy-rolling cartful of goodies, and Brutal had stocked up for a long night—three sandwiches, two pops, and a couple of moon pies. Also a side of potato salad Toot had undoubtedly filched from the prison kitchen, which was supposed to be off-limits to him. Brutal had the logbook open in front of him, and for a wonder he hadn’t spilled anything on it yet. Of course, he was just getting started.

“What?” Dean asked. “What is it?”

“State legislature must have opened the pursestrings enough to hire another screw this year after all,” Brutal said, still laughing. “Lookie yonder.”

He pointed and we saw the mouse. I started to laugh, too, and Dean joined in. You really couldn’t help it, because a guard doing quarter-hour check rounds was just like that mouse looked like: a tiny, furry guard making sure no one was trying to escape or commit suicide. It would trot a little way toward us along the Green Mile, then turn its head from side to side, as if checking the cells. Then it would make another forward spurt. The fact that we could hear both of our current inmates snoring away in spite of the yelling and the laughter somehow made it even funnier.

It was a perfectly ordinary brown mouse, except for the way it seemed to be checking into the cells. It even went into one or two of them, skipping nimbly in between the lower bars in a way I imagine many of our inmates, past and present, would envy. Except it was out that the cons would always be wanting to skip, of course.

The mouse didn’t go into either of the occupied cells; only the empties. And finally it had worked its way almost up to where we were. I kept expecting it to turn back, but it didn’t. It showed no fear of us at all.

“It ain’t normal for a mouse to come up on people that way,” Dean said, a little nervously. “Maybe it’s rabid.”

“Oh, my Christ,” Brutal said through a mouthful of corned-beef sandwich. “The big mouse expert. The Mouse Man. You see it foamin at the mouth, Mouse Man?”

“I can’t see its mouth at all,” Dean said, and that made us all laugh again. I couldn’t see its mouth, either, but I could see the dark little drops that were its eyes, and they didn’t look crazy or rabid to me. They looked interested and intelligent. I’ve put men to death—men with supposedly immortal souls—that looked dumber than that mouse.

It scurried up the Green Mile to a spot that was less than three feet from the duty desk …which wasn’t something fancy, like you might be imagining, but only the sort of desk the teachers used to sit behind up at the district high school. And there it did stop, curling its tail around its paws as prim as an old lady settling her skirts.

I stopped laughing all at once, suddenly feeling cold through my flesh all the way to the bones. I want to say I don’t know why I felt that way—no one likes to come out with something that’s going to make them look or sound ridiculous—but of course I do, and if I can tell the truth about the rest, I guess I can tell the truth about this. For a moment I imagined myself to be that mouse, not a guard at all but just another convicted criminal there on the Green Mile, convicted and condemned but still managing to look bravely up at a desk that must have seemed miles high to it (as the judgment seat of God will no doubt someday seem to us), and at the heavy-voiced, blue-coated giants who sat behind it. Giants that shot its kind with BB guns, or swatted them with brooms, or set traps on them, traps that broke their backs while they crept cautiously over the word VICTOR to nibble at the cheese on the little copper plate.

There was no broom by the duty desk, but there was a rolling mop-bucket with the mop still in the wringer; I’d taken my turn at swabbing the green lino and all six of the cells shortly before sitting down to the record-box with Dean. I saw that Dean meant to grab the mop- and take a swing with it. I touched his wrist just as his fingers touched the slender wooden handle. “Leave it be,” I said.

He shrugged and drew his hand back. I had a feeling he didn’t want to swat it any more than I did.

Brutal tore a corner off his corned-beef sandwich and held it out over the front of the desk, tweezed delicately between two fingers. The mouse seemed to look up with an even livelier interest, as if it knew exactly what it was. Probably did; I could see its whiskers twitch as its nose wriggled.

“Aw, Brutal, no!” Dean exclaimed, then looked at me. “Don’t let him do that, Paul! If he’s gonna feed the damn thing, we might as well put out the welcome mat for anything on four legs.—”

“I just want to see what he’ll do,” Brutal said. “In the interests of science, like.” He looked at me—I was the boss, even in such minor detours from routine as this. I thought about it and shrugged like it didn’t matter much, one way or another. The truth was, I kind of wanted to see what he’d do, too.

Well, he ate it—of course. There was a Depression on, after all. But the way he ate it fascinated us all. He approached the fragment of sandwich, sniffed his way around it, and then he sat up in front of it like a dog doing a trick, grabbed it, and pulled the bread apart to get at the meat. He did it as deliberately and knowingly as a man tucking into a good roast-beef dinner in his favorite restaurant. I never saw an animal eat like that, not even a well-trained house dog. And all the while he was eating, his eyes never left us.

“Either one smart mouse or hungry as hell,” a new voice said. It was Bitterbuck. He had awakened and now stood at the bars of his cell, naked except for a pair of saggy-seated boxer shorts. A home-rolled cigarette poked out from between the second and third knuckles of his right hand, and his iron-gray hair lay over his shoulders—once probably muscular but now beginning to soften—in a pair of braids.

“You got any Injun wisdom about micies, Chief?” Brutal asked, watching the mouse eat. We were all pretty fetched by the neat way it held the bit of corned beef in its forepaws, occasionally turning it or glancing at it, as if in admiration and appreciation.

“Naw,” Bitterbuck said. “Knowed a brave once had a pair of what he claimed were mouse-skin gloves, but I didn’t believe it!” Then he laughed, as if the whole thing was a joke, and left the bars. We heard the bunk creak as he lay down again.

That seemed to be the mouse’s signal to go. It finished up what it was holding, sniffed at what was left (mostly bread with yellow mustard soaking into it), and then looked back at us, as if it wanted to remember our faces if we met again. Then it turned and scurried off the way it had come, not pausing to do any cell-checks this time. Its hurry made me think of the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and I smiled. It didn’t pause at the door to the restraint room, but disappeared beneath it. The restraint room had soft walls, for people whose brains had softened a little. We kept cleaning equipment stored in there when we didn’t need the room for its created purpose, and a few books (most were westerns by Clarence Mulford, but one-loaned out only on special occasions—featured a profusely illustrated tale in which Popeye, Bluto, and even Wimpy the hamburger fiend took turns shtupping Olive Oyl). There were craft items as well, including the crayons Delacroix later put to some good use. Not that he was our problem yet; this was earlier, remember. Also in the restraint room was the jacket no one wanted to wear—white, made of double-sewn canvas, and with the buttons and snaps and buckles going up the back. We all knew how to zip a problem child into that jacket lickety-larrup. They didn’t get violent often, our lost boys, but when they did, brother, you didn’t wait around for the situation to improve on its own.

Brutal reached into the desk drawer above the kneehole and brought out the big leather-bound book with the word VISITORS stamped on the front in gold leaf. Ordinarily, that book stayed in the drawer from one month to the next. When a prisoner had visitors—unless it was a lawyer or a minister—he went over to the room off the messhall that was kept special for that purpose. The Arcade, we called it. I don’t know why.

“Just what in the Gorry do you think you’re doing?” Dean Stanton asked, peering over the tops of his spectacles as Brutal opened the book and paged grandly past years of visitors to men now dead.

“Obeyin Regulation 19,” Brutal said, finding the current page. He took the pencil and licked the tip—a disagreeable habit of which he could not be broken—and prepared to write. Regulation 19 stated simply: “Each visitor to E Block shall show a yellow Administration pass and shall be recorded without fail”

“He’s gone nuts,” Dean said to me.

“He didn’t show us his pass, but I’m gonna let it go this time,” Brutal said. He gave the tip of his pencil an extra lick for good luck, then filled in 9:49 p.m. under the column headed TIME ON BLOCK.

“Sure, why not, the big bosses probably make exceptions for mice,” I said.

“Course they do,” Brutal agreed. “Lack of pockets.” He turned to look at the wall-clock behind the desk, then printed 10:01 in the column headed TIME OFF BLOCK. The longer space between these two numbers was headed NAME OF VISITOR. After a moment’s hard thought—probably to muster his limited spelling skills, as I’m sure the idea was in his head already—Brutus Howell carefully wrote STEAMBOAT WILLY, which was what most people called Mickey Mouse back in those days. It was because of that first talkie cartoon, where he rolled his eyes and bumped his hips around and pulled the whistle cord in the pilothouse of the steamboat.

“There,” Brutal said, slamming the book closed and returning it to its drawer, “all done and buttoned up.”

I laughed, but Dean, who couldn’t help being serious about things even when he saw the joke, was frowning and polishing his glasses furiously. “You’ll be in trouble if someone sees that.” He hesitated and added, “The wrong someone.” He hesitated again, looking nearsightedly around almost as if he expected to see that the walls had grown ears, before finishing: “Someone like Percy Kiss-My-Ass-and-Go-to-Heaven Wetmore.”

“Huh,” Brutal said.—The day Percy Wetmore sits his narrow shanks down here at this desk will be the day I resign.”

“You won’t have to,” Dean said. “They’ll fire you for making jokes in the visitors’ book if Percy puts the right word in the right ear. And he can. You know he can!’

Brutal glowered but said nothing. I reckoned that later on that night he would erase what he had written. And if he didn’t, I would.

The next night, after getting first Bitterbuck and then The President over to D Block, where we showered our group after the regular cons were locked down, Brutal asked me if we shouldn’t have a look for Steamboat Willy down there in the restraint room.

“I guess we ought to,” I said. We’d had a good laugh over that mouse the night before, but I knew that if Brutal and I found it down there in the restraint room—particularly if we found it had gnawed itself the beginnings of a nest in one of the padded walls—we would kill it. Better to kill the scout, no matter how amusing it might be, than have to live with the pilgrims. And, I shouldn’t have to tell you, neither of us was very squeamish about a little mouse-murder. Killing rats was what the state paid us for, after all.

But we didn’t find Steamboat Willy—later to be known as Mr. Jingles—that night, not nested in the soft walls, or behind any of the collected junk we hauled out into the corridor. There was a great deal of junk, too, more than I would have expected, because we hadn’t had to use the restraint room in a long time. That would change with the advent of William Wharton, but of course we didn’t know that at the time. Lucky us.

“Where’d it go?” Brutal asked at last, wiping sweat off the back of his neck with a big blue bandanna. “No hole, no crack …there’s that, but—“ He pointed to the drain in the floor. Below the grate, which the mouse could have gotten through, was a fine steel mesh that not even a fly would have passed. “How’d it get in? How’d it get out?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“He did come in here, didn’t he? I mean, the three of us saw him.”

“Yep, right under the door. He had to squeeze a little, but he made it.”

“Gosh,” Brutal said—a word that sounded strange, coming from a man that big. “It’s a good thing the cons can’t make themselves small like that, isn’t it?”

“You bet,” I said, running my eye over the canvas walls one last time, looking for a hole, a crack, anything. There was nothing. “Come on. Let’s go.”

Steamboat Willy showed up again three nights later, when Harry Terwilliger was on the duty desk. Percy was also on, and chased the mouse back down the Green Mile with the same mop Dean had been thinking of using. The rodent avoided Percy easily, slipping through the crack beneath the restraint-room door a hands-down winner. Cursing at the top of his voice, Percy unlocked the door and hauled all that shit out again. It was funny and scary at the same time, Harry said. Percy was vowing he’d catch the goddam mouse and tear its diseased little head right off, but he didn’t, of course. Sweaty and disheveled, the shirttail of his uniform hanging out in the back, he returned to the duty desk half an hour later, brushing his hair out of his eyes and telling Harry (who had sat serenely reading through most of the ruckus) that he was going to put a strip of insulation on the bottom of the door down there; that would solve the vermin problem, he declared.

“Whatever you think is best, Percy,” Harry said, turning a page of the oat opera he was reading. He thought Percy would forget about blocking the crack at the bottom of that door, and he was right.

Chapter 8

8

Late that winter, long after these events were over, Brutal came to me one night when it was just the two of us, E Block temporarily empty and all the other guards temporarily reassigned. Percy had gone on to Briar Ridge.

“Come here,” Brutal said in a funny, squeezed voice that made me look around at him sharply. I had just come in out of a cold and sleety night, and had been brushing off the shoulders of my coat prior to hanging it up.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “but I found out where Mr. Jingles was staying. When he first came, I mean, before Delacroix took him over. Do you want to see?”

Of course I did. I followed him down the Green Mile to the restraint room. All the stuff we kept stored there was out in the hall; Brutal had apparently taken advantage of the lull in customer traffic to do some cleaning up. The door was open, and I saw our mop-bucket inside. The floor, that same sick lime shade as the Green Mile itself, was drying in streaks. Standing in the middle of the floor was a stepladder, the one that was usually kept in the storage room, which also happened to serve as the final stop for the state’s condemned. There was a shelf jutting out from the back of the ladder near the top, the sort of thing a workman would use to hold his toolkit or a painter the bucket he was working out of. There was a flashlight on it. Brutal handed it to me.

“Get on up there. You’re shorter than me, so you’ll have to go pretty near all the way, but I’ll hold your legs!”

“I’m ticklish down there,” I said, starting up. “Especially my knees!’

“I’ll mind that!”

“Good,” I said, “because a broken hip’s too high a price to pay in order to discover the origins of a single mouse.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind.” My head was up by the caged light in the center of the ceiling by then, and I could feel the ladder wiggling a little under my weight. Outside, I could hear the winter wind moaning. “Just hold onto me.”

“I got you, don’t worry.” He gripped my calves firmly, and I went up one more step. Now the top of my head was less than a foot from the ceiling, and I could see the cobwebs a few enterprising spiders had spun in the crotches where the roof beams came together. I shone the light around but didn’t see anything worth the risk of being up here.

“No,” Brutal said. “You’re looking too far away, Paul. Look to your left, where those two beams come together. You see them? One’s a little discolored!’

“I see.”

“Shine the light on the join!”

I did, and saw what he wanted me to see almost right away. The beams had been pegged together with dowels, half a dozen of them, and one was gone, leaving a black, circular hole the size of a quarter. I looked at it, then looked doubtfully back over my shoulder at Brutal. “It was a small mouse,” I said, “but that small? Man, I don’t think so.”

“But that’s where he went,” Brutal said. “I’m just as sure as houses.”

“I don’t see how you can be.”

“Lean closer—don’t worry I got you—and take a whiff.”

I did as he asked, groping with my left hand for one of the other beams, and feeling a little better when I had hold of it. The wind outside gusted again; air puffed out of that hole and into my face. I could smell the keen breath of a winter night in the border South …and something else, as well.

The smell of peppermint.

Don’t let nothing happen to Mr. Jingles, I could hear Delacroix saying in a voice that wouldn’t stay steady I could hear that, and I could feel the warmth of Mr. Jingles as the Frenchman handed it to me, just a mouse, smarter than most of the species, no doubt, but still just a mouse for a’ that and a’ that. Don’t let that bad ’un hurt my mouse, he’d said, and I had promised, as I always promised them at the end when walking the Green Mile was no longer a myth or a hypothesis but something they really had to do. Mail this letter to my brother, who I haven’t seen for twenty years? I promise. Say fifteen Hail Marys for my soul? I promise. Let me die under my spirit-name and see that it goes on my tombstone? I promise. It was the way you got them to go and be good about it, the way you saw them into the chair sitting at the end of the Green Mile with their sanity intact. I couldn’t keep all of those promises, of course, but I kept the one I made to Delacroix. As for the Frenchman himself, there had been hell to pay. The bad ’un had hurt Delacroix, hurt him plenty. Oh, I know what he did, all right, but no one deserved what happened to Eduard Delacroix when he fell into Old Sparky’s savage embrace.

A smell of peppermint.

And something else. Something back inside that hole.

I took a pen out of my breast pocket with my right hand, still holding onto the beam with my left, not worried anymore about Brutal inadvertently tickling my sensitive knees. I unscrewed the pen’s cap onehanded, then poked the nib in and teased something out. It was a tiny splinter of wood which had been tinted a bright yellow, and I heard Delacroix’s voice again, so clearly this time that his ghost might have been lurking in that room with us—the one where William Wharton spent so much of his time.

Hey, you guys! the voice said this time—the laughing, amazed voice of a man who has forgotten, at least for a little while, where he is and what awaits him. Come and see what Mr. Jingles can do!

“Christ,” I whispered. I felt as if the wind had been knocked out of me.

“You found another one, didn’t you?” Brutal asked. “I found three or four.”

I came down and shone the light on his big, outstretched palm. Several splinters of wood were scattered there, like jackstraws for elves. Two were yellow, like the one I had found. One was green and one was red. They hadn’t been painted but colored, with wax Crayola crayons.

“Oh, boy,” I said in a low, shaky voice. “Oh, hey. It’s pieces of that spool, isn’t it? But why? Why up there?”

“When I was a kid I wasn’t big like I am now,” Brutal said. “I got most of my growth between fifteen and seventeen. Until then I was a shrimp. And when I went off to school the first time, I felt as small as …why, as small as a mouse, I guess you’d say. I was scared to death. So you know what I did?”

I shook my head. Outside, the wind gusted again. In the angles formed by the beams, cobwebs shook in feathery drafts, like rotted lace. Never had I been in a place that felt so nakedly haunted, and it was right then, as we stood there looking down at the splintered remains of the spool which had caused so much trouble, that my head began to know what my heart had understood ever since John Coffey had walked the Green Mile: I couldn’t do this job much longer. Depression, or no Depression, I couldn’t watch many more men walk through my office to their deaths. Even one more might be too many.

“I asked my mother for one of her hankies,” Brutal said. “So when I felt weepy and small, I could sneak it out and smell her perfume and not feel so bad.”

“You think—what?—that mouse chewed off some of that colored spool to remember Delacroix by? That a mouse—”

He looked up. I thought for a moment I saw tears in his eyes, but I guess I was probably wrong about that. “I ain’t saying nothing, Paul. But I found them up there, and I smelled peppermint, same as you you know you did. And I can’t do this no more. I won’t do this no more. Seeing one more man in that chair’d just about kill me. I’m going to put in for a transfer to Boys’ Correctional on Monday. If I get it before the next one, that’s fine. If I don’t, I’ll resign and go back to farming.”

“What did you ever farm, besides rocks?”

“It don’t matter.”

“I know it doesn’t,” I said. “I think I’ll put in with you.—”

He looked at me close, making sure I wasn’t just having some sport with him, then nodded as if it was a settled thing. The wind gusted again, strong enough this time to make the beams creak and settle, and we both looked around uneasily at the padded walls. I think for a moment we could hear William Wharton not Billy the Kid, not him, he had been “Wild Bill” to us from his first day on the block—screaming and laughing, telling us we were going to be damned glad to be rid of him, telling us we would never forget him. About those things he was right.

As for what Brutal and I agreed on that night in the restraint room, it turned out just that way It was almost as if we had taken a solemn oath on those tiny bits of colored, wood. Neither of us ever took part in another execution. John Coffey was the last.

The Green Mile

Part III

The Mouse on the Mile

Chapter 9

1

The nursing home where I am crossing my last bunch of t’s and dotting my last mess of i’s is called Georgia Pines. It’s about sixty miles from Atlanta and about two hundred light-years from life as most people—people under the age of eighty, let’s say—live it. You who are reading this want to be careful that there isn’t a place like it waiting in your future. It’s not a cruel place, not for the most part; there’s cable TV, the food’s good (although there’s damned little a man can chew), but in its way, it’s as much of a killing bottle as E Block at Cold Mountain ever was.

There’s even a fellow here who reminds me a little of Percy Wetmore, who got his job on the Green Mile because he was related to the governor of the state. I doubt if this fellow is related to anyone important, even though he acts that way. Brad Dolan, his name is. He’s always combing his hair, like Percy was, and he’s always got something to read stuffed into his back pocket. With Percy it was magazines like Argosy and Men’s Adventure; with Brad it’s these little paperbacks called Gross jokes and Sick jokes. He’s always asking people why the Frenchman crossed the road or how many Polacks it takes to screw in a lightbulb or how many pallbearers there are at a Harlem funeral. Like Percy, Brad is a dimwit who thinks nothing is funny unless it’s mean.

Something Brad said the other day struck me as actually smart, but I don’t give him a lot of credit for it; even a stopped clock is right twice a day, the proverb has it. “You’re just lucky you don’t have that Alzheimer’s disease, Paulie,” was what he said. I hate him calling me that, Paulie, but he goes on doing it, anyway; I’ve given up asking him to quit. There are other sayings—not quite proverbs—that apply to Brad Dolan: “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” is one; “You can dress him up but you can’t take him out” is another. In his thickheadedness he is also like Percy.

When he made his comment about Alzheimer’s, he was mopping the floor of the solarium, where I had been going over the pages I have already written. There’s a great lot of them, and I think there’s apt to be a great lot more before I am through. “That Alzheimer’s, do you know what it really is?”

“No,” I said,—but I’m sure you’ll tell me, Brad.”

“It’s AIDS for old people,” he said, and then burst out laughing, hucka-hucka-hucka-huck!, just like he does over those idiotic jokes of his.

I didn’t laugh, though, because what he said struck a nerve somewhere. Not that I have Alzheimer’s; although there’s plenty of it on view here at beautiful Georgia Pines, I myself just suffer the standard oldguy memory problems. Those problems seem to have more to do with when than what. Looking over what I have written so far, it occurs to me that I remember everything that happened back in ’32; it’s the order of events that sometimes gets confused in my head. Yet, if I’m careful, I think I can keep even that sorted out. More or less.

John Coffey came to E Block and the Green Mile in October of that year, condemned for the murder of the nine-year-old Detterick twins. That’s my major landmark, and if I keep it in view, I should do just fine. William ’Wild Bill’ Wharton came after Coffey; Delacroix came before. So did the mouse, the one Brutus Howell—Brutal, to his friends—called Steamboat Willy and Delacroix ended up calling Mr. Jingles.

Whatever you called him, the mouse came first, even before Del—it was still summer when he showed up, and we had two other prisoners on the Green Mile: The Chief, Arlen Bitterbuck; and The Pres, Arthur Flanders.

That mouse. That goddam mouse. Delacroix loved it, but Percy Wetmore sure didn’t.

Percy hated it from the first.

Chapter 10

2

The mouse came back just about three days after Percy had chased it down the Green Mile that first time. Dean Stanton and Bill Dodge were talking politics, which meant in those days, they were talking Roosevelt and Hoover—Herbert, not J. Edgar. They were eating Ritz crackers from a box Dean had purchased from old Toot-Toot an hour or so before. Percy was standing in the office doorway, practicing quick draws with the baton he loved so much, as he listened. He’d pull it out of that ridiculous handtooled holster he’d gotten somewhere, then twirl it (or try to; most times he would have dropped it if not for the rawhide loop he kept on his wrist), then re-holster it. I was off that night, but got the full report from Dean the following evening.

The mouse came up the Green Mile just as it had before, hopping along, then stopping and seeming to check the empty cells. After a bit of that it would hop on, undiscouraged, as if it had known all along it would be a long search, and it was up to that. The President was awake this time, standing at his cell door. That guy was a piece of work, managing to look natty even in his prison blues. We knew just by the way he looked that he wasn’t made for Old Sparky, and we were right—less than a week after Percy’s second run at that mouse, The Pres’s sentence was commuted to life and he joined the general population.

“Say!” he called. ”There’s a mouse in here! What kind of a joint are you guys running, anyway?” He was kind of laughing, but Dean said he also sounded kind of outraged, as if even a murder rap hadn’t been quite enough to knock the Kiwanis out of his soul. He had been the regional head of an outfit called Mid-South Realty Associates, and had thought himself smart enough to be able to get away with pushing his half-senile father out a third-story window and collect on a double-indemnity whole-life policy. On that he had been wrong, but maybe not by much.

“Shut up, you lugoon,” Percy said, but that was pretty much automatic. He had his eye on the mouse. He had re-holstered his baton and taken out one of his magazines, but now he tossed the magazine on the duty desk and pulled the baton out of its holster again. He began tapping it casually against the knuckles of his left hand.

“Son of a bitch,” Bill Dodge said. “I’ve never seen a mouse in here before.”

“Aw, he’s sort of cute,” Dean said. “And not afraid at all.”

“How do you know?”

“He was in the other night. Percy saw him, too. Brutal calls him Steamboat Willy.”

Percy kind of sneered at that, but for the time being said nothing. He was tapping the baton faster now on the back of his hand.

“Watch this,” Dean said. “He came all the way up to the desk before. I want to see if he’ll do it again.”

It did, skirting wide of The Pres on its way, as if it didn’t like the way our resident parricide smelled. It checked two of the empty cells, even ran up onto one of the bare, unmattressed cots for a sniff, then came back to the Green Mile. And Percy standing there the whole time, tapping and tapping, not talking for a change, wanting to make it sorry for coming back. Wanting to teach it a lesson.

“Good thing you guys don’t have to put him in Sparky,” Bill said, interested in spite of himself. “You’d have a hell of a time getting the clamps and the cap on.”

Percy said nothing still, but he very slowly gripped the baton between his fingers, the way a man would hold a good cigar.

The mouse stopped where it had before, no more than three feet from the duty desk, looking up at Dean like a prisoner before the bar. It glanced up at Bill for a moment, then switched its attention back to Dean. Percy it hardly seemed to notice at all.

“He’s a brave little barstid, I got to give him that,” Bill said. He raised his voice a little. “Hey! Hey! Steamboat Willy!”

The mouse flinched a little and fluttered its ears, but it didn’t run, or even show any signs of wanting to.

“Now watch this,” Dean said, remembering how Brutal had fed it some of his corned-beef sandwich. “I don’t know if he’ll do it again, but—”

He broke off a piece of Ritz cracker and dropped it in front of the mouse. It just looked with its sharp black eyes at the orangey fragment for a second or two, its filament-fine whiskers twitching as it sniffed. Then it reached out, took the cracker in its paws, sat up, and began to eat.

“Well. I’ll be shucked and boiled!” Bill exclaimed. “Eats as neat as a parson on parish house Saturday night!”

“Looks more like a nigger eating watermelon to me.". Percy remarked, but neither guard paid him any mind. Neither did The Chief or The Pres, for that matter. The mouse finished the cracker but continued to sit, seemingly balanced on the talented coil of its tail, looking up at the giants in blue.

“Lemme try,” Bill said. He broke off another piece of cracker, leaned over the front of the desk, and dropped it carefully. The mouse sniffed but did not touch.

“Huh,” Bill said. “Must be full.”

“Nah,” Dean said, “he knows you’re a floater, that’s all.”

“Floater, am I? I like that! I’m here almost as much as Harry Terwilliger! Maybe more!” “Simmer down, old-timer, simmer down,” Dean said, grinning. “But watch and see if I’m not right.” He bombed another piece of cracker over the side. Sure enough, the mouse picked that one up and began to eat again, still ignoring Bill Dodge’s contribution completely. But before it had done more than take a preliminary nibble or two, Percy threw his baton at it, launching it like a spear.

The mouse was a small target, and give the devil his due—it was a wickedly good shot, and might have taken “Willy’s” head clean off, if its reflexes hadn’t been as sharp as shards of broken glass. It ducked—yes, just as a human being would have—and dropped the chunk of cracker. The heavy hickory baton passed over its head and spine close enough so its fur ruffled (that’s what Dean said, anyway, and so I pass it on, although I’m not sure I really believe it), then hit the green linoleum and bounced against the bars of an empty cell. The mouse didn’t wait to see if it was a mistake; apparently remembering a pressing engagement elsewhere, it turned and was off down the corridor toward the restraint room in a flash.

Percy roared with frustration—he knew how close he had come—and chased after it again. Bill Dodge grabbed at his arm, probably out of simple instinct, but Percy pulled away from him. Still, Dean said, it was probably that grab which saved Steamboat Willy’s life, and it was still a near thing. Percy wanted not just to kill the mouse but to squash it, so he ran in big, comical leaps, like a deer, stamping down with his heavy black workshoes. The mouse barely avoided Percy’s last two jumps, first zigging and then zagging. It went under the door with a final flick of its long pink tail, and so long, stranger—it was gone.

“Fuck!” Percy said, and slammed the flat of his hand against the door. Then he began to sort through his keys, meaning to go into the restraint room and continue the chase.

Dean came down the corridor after him, deliberately walking slow in order to get his emotions under control. Part of him wanted to laugh at Percy, he told me, but part of him wanted to grab the man, whirl him around, pin him against the restraint-room door, and whale the living daylights out of him. Most of it, of course, was just being startled; our job on E Block was to keep rumpus to a minimum, and rumpus was practically Percy Wetmore’s middle name. Working with him was sort of like trying to defuse a bomb with somebody standing behind you and every now and then clashing a pair of cymbals together. In a word, upsetting. Dean said he could see that upset in Arlen Bitterbucks eyes …even in The President’s eyes, although that gentleman was usually as cool as the storied cucumber.

And there was something else, as well. In some part of his mind, Dean had already begun to accept the mouse as—well, maybe not as a friend, but as a part of life on the block. That made what Percy had done and what he was trying to do not right. Not even if it was a mouse he was trying to do it to. And the fact that Percy would never understand how come it wasn’t right was pretty much the perfect example of why he was all wrong for the job he thought he was doing.

By the time Dean reached the end of the corridor, he had gotten himself under control again, and knew how he wanted to handle the matter. The one thing Percy absolutely couldn’t stand was to look foolish, and we all knew it.

“Coises, foiled again,” he said, grinning a little, kidding Percy along.

Percy gave him an ugly look and flicked his hair off his brow. “Match your mouth, Four-Eyes. I’m riled. Don’t make it worse!”

“So it’s moving day again, is it?” Dean said, not quite laughing …but laughing with his eyes. “Well, when you get everything out this time, would you mind mopping the floor?”

Percy looked at the door. Looked at his keys. Thought about another long, hot, fruitless rummage in the room with the soft walls while they all stood around and watched him …The Chief and The Pres, too.

“I’ll be damned if I understand what’s so funny,” he said. “We don’t need mice in the cellblock—we got enough vermin in here already, without adding mice.”

“Whatever you say, Percy,” Dean said, holding up his hands. He had a moment right there, he told me the next night, when he believed Percy might just take after him.

Bill Dodge strolled up then and smoothed it over. “Think you dropped this,” he said, and handed Percy his baton. “An inch lower, you woulda broken the little barstid’s back.”

Percy’s chest expanded at that. “Yeah, it wasn’t a bad shot,” he said, carefully re-seating his headknocker in its foolish holster. “I used to be a pitcher in high school. Threw two no-hitters.”

“Is that right, now?” Bill said, and the respectful tone of voice (although he winked at Dean when Percy turned away) was enough to finish defusing the situation.

“Yep,” Percy said. “Threw one down in Knoxville. Those city boys didn’t know what hit em. Walked two. Could have had a perfect game if the ump hadn’t been such a lugoon.”

Dean could have left it at that, but he had seniority on Percy and part of a senior’s job is to instruct, and at that time—before Coffey, before Delacroix—he still thought Percy might be teachable. So he reached out and grasped the younger man’s wrist. “You want to think about what you was doing just now,” Dean said. His intention, he said later, was to sound serious but not disapproving. Not too disapproving, anyway.

Except with Percy, that didn’t work. He might not learn …but we would eventually.

“Say, Four-Eyes, I know what I was doing—trying to get that mouse! What’re you, blind?”

“You also scared the cheese out of Bill, out of me, and out of them,” Dean said, pointing in the direction of Bitterbuck and Flanders.

“So what?” Percy asked, drawing himself up. “They ain’t in cradle-school, in case you didn’t notice. Although you guys treat them that way half the time.”

“Well, I don’t like to be scared,” Bill rumbled, “and I work here, Wetmore, in case you didn’t notice. I ain’t one of your lugoons.”

Percy gave him a look that was narrow-eyed and a touch uncertain.

“And we don’t scare them any more than we have to, because they’re under a lot of strain,” Dean said. He was still keeping his voice low. “Men that are under a lot of strain can snap. Hurt themselves. Hurt others. Sometimes get folks like us in trouble, too.”

Percy’s mouth twitched at that. “In trouble” was an idea that had power over him. Making trouble was okay. Getting into it was not.

“Our job is talking, not yelling,” Dean said. “A man who is yelling at prisoners is a man who has lost control.”

Percy knew who had written that scripture—me.

The boss. There was no love lost between Percy Wetmore and Paul Edgecombe, and this was still summer, remember—long before the real festivities started.

“You’ll do better,” Dean said, “if you think of this place as like an intensive-care ward in a hospital. It’s best to be quiet—!”

“I think of it as a bucket of piss to drown rats in,” Percy said, “and that’s all. Now let me go.”

He tore free of Dean’s hand, stepped between him and Bill, and stalked up the corridor with his head down. He walked a little too close to The President’s side—close enough so that Flanders could have reached out, grabbed him, and maybe headwhipped him with his own prized hickory baton, had Flanders been that sort of man. He wasn’t, of course, but The Chief perhaps was. The Chief, if given a chance, might have administered such a beating just to teach Percy a lesson. What Dean said to me on that subject when he told me this story the following night has stuck with me ever since, because it turned out to be a kind of prophecy. “Wetmore don’t understand that he hasn’t got any power over them,” Dean said. “That nothing he does can really make things worse for them, that they can only be electrocuted once. Until he gets his head around that, he’s going to be a danger to himself and to everyone else down here.”

Percy went into my office and slammed the door behind him.

“My, my,” Bill Dodge said. “Ain’t he the swollen and badly infected testicle.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Dean said.

“Oh, look on the bright side,” Bill said. He was always telling people to look on the bright side; it got so you wanted to punch his nose every time it came out of his mouth. “Your trick mouse got away, at least.”

“Yeah, but we won’t see him no more,” Dean said. “I imagine this time goddam Percy Wetmore’s scared him off for good.”

Chapter 11

3

That was logical but wrong. The mouse was back the very next evening, which just happened to be the first of Percy Wetmore’s two nights off before he slid over to the graveyard shift.

Steamboat Willy showed up around seven o’clock. I was there to see his reappearance; so was Dean. Harry Terwilliger, too. Harry was on the desk. I was technically on days, but had stuck around to spend an extra hour with The Chief, whose time was getting close by then. Bitterbuck was stoical on the outside, in the tradition of his tribe, but I could see his fear of the end growing inside him like a poison flower. So we talked. You could talk to them in the daytime but it wasn’t so good, with the shouts and conversation (not to mention the occasional fist-fight) coming from the exercise yard, the chonk-chonk-chonk of the stamping machines in the plate-shop, the occasional yell of a guard for someone to put down that pick or grab up that hoe or just to get your ass over here, Harvey. After four it got a little better, and after six it got better still. Six to eight was the optimum time. After that you could see the long thoughts starting to steal over their minds again—in their eyes you could see it, like afternoon shadows and it was best to stop. They still heard what you were saying, but it no longer made sense to them. Past eight they were getting ready for the watches of the night and imagining how the cap would feel when it was clamped to the tops of their heads, and how the air would smell inside the black bag which had been rolled down over their sweaty faces.

But I got The Chief at a good time. He told me about his first wife, and how they had built a lodge together up in Montana. Those had been the happiest days of his life, he said. The water was so pure and so cold that it felt like your mouth was cut every time you drank.

“Hey, Mr. Edgecombe,” he said. “You think, if a man he sincerely repent of what he done wrong, he might get to go back to the time that was happiest for him and live there forever? Could that be what heaven is like?”

“I’ve just about believed that very thing,” I said, which was a he I didn’t regret in the least. I had learned of matters eternal at my mother’s pretty knee, and what I believed is what the Good Book says about murderers: that there is no eternal life in them. I think they go straight to hell, where they burn in torment until God finally gives Gabriel the nod to blow the Judgment Trump. When he does, they’ll wink out …and probably glad to go they will be. But I never gave a hint of such beliefs to Bitterbuck, or to any of them. I think in their hearts they knew it. Where is your brother, his blood crieth to me from the ground, God said to Cain, and I doubt if the words were much of a surprise to that particular problem-child; I bet he heard Abel’s blood whining out of the earth at him with each step he took.

The Chief was smiling when I left, perhaps thinking about his lodge in Montana and his wife lying bare-breasted in the light of the fire. He would be walking in a warmer fire soon, I had no doubt. I went back up the corridor, and Dean told me about his set-to with Percy the previous night. I think he’d waited around just so he could, and I listened carefully. I always listened carefully when the subject was Percy, because I agreed with Dean a hundred per cent—I thought Percy was the sort of man who could cause a lot of trouble, as much for the rest of us as for himself.

As Dean was finishing, old Toot-Toot came by with his red snack-wagon, which was covered with handlettered Bible quotes ("REPENT for the LORD shall judge his people,” Deut. 32:36, “And surely your BLOOD of your lives will I require,” Gen. 9:5, and similar cheery, uplifting sentiments), and sold us some sandwiches and pops. Dean was hunting for change in his pocket and saying that we wouldn’t see Steamboat Willy anymore, that goddam Percy Wetmore had scared him off for good, when old Toot-Toot said, ’What’s that’ere, then?”

We looked, and here came the mouse of the hour his ownself, hopping up the middle of the Green Mile. He’d come a little way; then stop, look around with his bright little oildrop eyes, then come on again.

“Hey, mouse!” The Chief said, and the mouse stopped and looked at him, whiskers twitching. I tell you, it was exactly as if the damned thing knew it had been called. “You some kind of spirit guide?”

Bitterbuck tossed the mouse a little morsel of cheese from his supper. It landed right in front of the mouse, but Steamboat Willy hardly even glanced at it, just came on his way again, up the Green Mile, looking in empty cells.

“Boss Edgecombe!” The President called. “Do you think that little bastard knows Wetmore isn’t here? I do, by God!”

I felt about the same …but I wasn’t going to say so out loud.

Harry came out into the hall, hitching up his pants the way he always did after he’d spent a refreshing few minutes in the can, and stood there with his eyes wide. Toot-Toot was also staring, a sunken grin doing unpleasant things to the soft and toothless lower half of his face.

The mouse stopped in what was becoming its usual spot, curled its tail around its paws, and looked at us. Again I was reminded of pictures I had seen of judges passing sentence on hapless prisoners …yet, had there ever been a prisoner as small and unafraid as this one? Not that it really was a prisoner, of course; it could come and go pretty much as it pleased. Yet the idea would not leave my mind, and it again occurred to me that most of us would feel that small when approaching God’s judgment seat after our lives were over, but very few of us would be able to look so unafraid.

“Well, I swear,” Old Toot-Toot said. “There he sits, big as Billy-Be-Frigged.”

“You ain’t seen nothing yet, Toot,” Harry said. “atch this.” He reached into his breast pocket and came out with a slice of cinnamon apple wrapped in waxed paper. He broke off the end and tossed it on the floor. It was dry and hard and I thought it would bounce right past the mouse, but it reached out one paw, as carelessly as a man swatting at a fly to pass the time, and batted it flat. We all laughed in admiration and surprise, an outburst of sound that should have sent the mouse skittering, but it barely twitched. It picked up the piece of dried apple in its paws, gave it a couple of licks, then dropped it and looked up at us as if to say, Not bad, what else do you have?

Toot-Toot opened his cart, took out a sandwich, unwrapped it, and tore off a scrap of bologna.

“Don’t bother,” Dean said.

“What do you mean?” Toot-Toot asked. “Ain’t a mouse alive’d pass up bologna if he could get it. You a crazy guy!”

But I knew Dean was right, and I could see by Harry’s face that he knew it, too. There were floaters and there were regulars. Somehow, that mouse seemed to know the difference. Nuts, but true.

Old Toot-Toot tossed the scrap of bologna down, and sure enough, the mouse wouldn’t have a thing to do with it; sniffed it once and then backed off a pace.

“I’ll be a goddamned son of a bitch,” Old Toot-Toot said, sounding offended.

I held out my hand. “Give it to me.”

“What—same sammitch?”

“Same one. I’ll pay for it.”

Toot-Toot handed it over. I lifted the top slice of bread, tore off another sliver of meat, and dropped it over the front of the duty desk. The mouse came forward at once. picked it up in its paws, and began to eat. The bologna was gone before you could say Jack Robinson.

“I’ll be goddamned!” Toot-Toot cried. “Bloody hell! Gimme dat!”

He snatched back the sandwich, tore off a much larger piece of meat—not a scrap this time but a flap and dropped it so close to the mouse that Steamboat Willy almost ended up wearing it for a hat. It drew back again, sniffed (surely no mouse ever hit such a jackpot during the Depression—not in our state, at least), and then looked up at us.

“Go on, eat it!” Toot-Toot said, sounding more offended than ever. “What’s wrong witchoo?”

Dean took the sandwich and dropped a piece of meat—by then it was like some strange communion service. The mouse picked it up at once and bolted it down. Then it turned and went back down the corridor to the restraint room, pausing along the way to peer into a couple of empty cells and to take a brief investigatory tour of a third. Once again the idea that it was looking for someone occurred to me, and this time I dismissed the thought more slowly.

“I’m not going to talk about this,” Harry said. He sounded as if he was half-joking, half-not. “First of all, nobody’d care. Second, they wouldn’t believe me if they did.”

“He only ate from you fellas,” Toot-Toot said. He shook his head in disbelief, then bent laboriously over, picked up what the mouse had disdained, and popped it into his own toothless maw, where he be gan the job of gumming it into submission. “Now why he do dat?”

“I’ve got a better one,” Harry said. “How’d he know Percy was off?”

“He didn’t,” I said. “It was just coincidence, that mouse showing up tonight.”

Except that got harder and harder to believe as the days went by and the mouse showed up only when Percy was off, on another shift, or in another part of the prison. We—Harry, Dean, Brutal, and me decided that it must know Percy’s voice, or his smell.

We carefully avoided too much discussion about the mouse itself—himself. That, we seemed to have decided without saying a word, might go a long way toward spoiling something that was special, and beautiful, by virtue of its strangeness and delicacy. Willy had chosen us, after all, in some way I do not understand, even now. Maybe Harry came closest when he said it would do no good to tell other people, not just because they wouldn’t believe but because they wouldn’t care.

Chapter 12

4

Then it was time for the execution of Arlen Bitterbuck, in reality no chief but first elder of his tribe on the Washita Reservation, and a member of the Cherokee Council as well. He had killed a man while drunk—while both of them were drunk, in fact. The Chief had crushed the man’s head with a cement block. At issue had been a pair of boots. So, on July seventeenth of that rainy summer, my council of elders intended for his life to end.

Visiting hours for most Cold Mountain prisoners were as rigid as steel beams, but that didn’t hold for our boys on E Block. So, on the sixteenth, Bitterbuck was allowed over to the long room adjacent to the cafeteria—the Arcade. It was divided straight down the middle by mesh interwoven with strands of barbed wire. Here The Chief would visit with his second wife and those of his children who would still treat with him. It was time for the good-byes.

He was taken over there by Bill Dodge and two other floaters. The rest of us had work to do—one hour to cram in at least two rehearsals. Three, if we could manage it.

Percy didn’t make much protest over being put in the switch room with Jack Van Hay for the Bitterbuck electrocution; he was too green to know if he was being given a good spot or a bad one. What he did know was that he had a rectangular mesh window to look through, and although he probably didn’t care to be looking at the back of the chair instead of the front, he would still be close enough to see the sparks flying.

Right outside that window was a black wall telephone with no crank or dial on it. That phone could only ring in, and only from one place: the governor’s office. I’ve seen lots of jailhouse movies over the years where the official phone rings just as they’re getting ready to pull the switch on some poor innocent sap, but ours never rang during all my years on E Block, never once. In the movies, salvation is cheap. So is innocence. You pay a quarter, and a quarter’s worth is just what you get. Real life costs more, and most of the answers are different.

We had a tailor’s dummy down in the tunnel for the run to the meatwagon, and we had Old Toot-Toot for the rest. Over the years, Toot had somehow become the traditional stand-in for the condemned, as time-honored in his way as the goose you sit down to on Christmas, whether you like goose or not. Most of the other screws liked him, were amused by his funny accent—also French, but Canadian rather than Cajun, and softened into its own thing by his years of incarceration in the South. Even Brutal got a kick out of Old Toot. Not me, though. I thought he was, in his way, an older and dimmer version of Percy Wetmore, a man too squeamish to kill and cook his own meat but who did, all the same, just love the smell of a barbecue.

We were all there for the rehearsal, just as we would all be there for the main event. Brutus Howell had been “put out,” as we said, which meant that he would place the cap, monitor the governor’s phoneline, summon the doctor from his place by the wall if he was needed, and give the actual order to roll on two when the time came. If it went well, there would be no credit for anyone. If it didn’t go well, Brutal would be blamed by the witnesses and I would be blamed by the warden. Neither of us complained about this; it wouldn’t have done any good. The world turns, that’s all. You can hold on and turn with it, or stand up to protest and be spun right off.

Dean, Harry Terwilliger, and I walked down to The Chief’s cell for the first rehearsal not three minutes after Bill and his troops had escorted Bitterbuck off the block and over to the Arcade. The cell door was open, and Old Toot-Toot sat on The Chief’s bunk, his wispy white hair flying.

“There come-stains all over dis sheet,” Toot-Toot remarked. “He mus’ be tryin to get rid of it before you fellas boil it off!” And he cackled.

“Shut up, Toot,” Dean said. “Let’s play this serious.”

“Okay,” Toot-Toot said, immediately composing his face into an expression of thunderous gravity. But his eyes twinkled. Old Toot never looked so alive as when he was playing dead.

I stepped forward. “Arlen Bitterbuck, as an officer of the court and of the state of blah-blah, I have a warrant for blah-blah, such execution to be carried out at twelve-oh-one on blah-blah, will you step forward?”

Toot got off the bunk. “I’m steppin forward, I’m steppin forward, I’m steppin forward,” he said.

“Turn around,” Dean said, and when Toot-Toot turned, Dean examined the dandruffy top of his head. The crown of The Chief’s head would be shaved tomorrow night, and Dean’s check then would be to make sure he didn’t need a touch-up. Stubble could impede conduction, make things harder. Everything we were doing today was about making things easier.

“All right, Arlen, let’s go,” I said to Toot-Toot, and away we went.

“I’m walkin down the corridor, I’m walkin down the corridor, I’m walkin down the corridor,” Toot said. I flanked him on the left, Dean on the right. Harry was directly behind him. At the head of the corridor we turned right, away from life as it was lived in the exercise yard and toward death as it was died in the storage room. We went into my office, and Toot dropped to his knees without having to be asked. He knew the script, all right, probably better than any of us. God knew he’d been there longer than any of us.

“I’m prayin, I’m prayin, I’m prayin,” Toot-Toot said, holding his gnarled hands up. They looked like that famous engraving, you probably know the one I mean. “The Lord is my shepherd, so on ’n so forth.”

“Who’s Bitterbuck got?” Harry asked. “We’re not going to have some Cherokee medicine man in here shaking his dick, are we?”

“Actually—“

“Still prayin, still prayin, still gettin right with Jesus,” Toot overrode me.

“Shut up, you old gink,” Dean said.

“I’m prayin!”

“Then pray to yourself.”

“What’s keepin you guys?” Brutal hollered in from the storage room. That had also been emptied for our use. We were in the killing zone again, all right; it was a thing you could almost smell.

“Hold your friggin water!” Harry yelled back. “Don’t be so goddam impatient!”

“Prayin,” Toot said, grinning his unpleasant sunken grin. “Prayin for patience, just a little goddam patience.”

“Actually, Bitterbuck’s a Christian—he says,” I told them, “and he’s perfectly happy with the Baptist guy who came for Tillman Clark. Schuster, his name is. I like him, too. He’s fast, and he doesn’t get them all worked up. On your feet, Toot. You prayed enough for one day.”

“Walkin,” Toot said. “Walkin again, walkin again, yes sir, walkin on the Green Mile.”

Short as he was, he still had to duck a little to get through the door on the far side of the office. The rest of us had to duck even more. This was a vulnerable time with a real prisoner, and when I looked across to the platform where Old Sparky stood and saw Brutal with his gun drawn, I nodded with satisfaction. Just right.

Toot-Toot went down the steps and stopped. The folding wooden chairs, about forty of them, were already in place. Bitterbuck would cross to the platform on an angle that would keep him safely away from the seated spectators, and half a dozen guards would be added for insurance. Bill Dodge would be in charge of those. We had never had a witness menaced by a condemned prisoner in spite of what was, admittedly, a raw set-up, and that was how I meant to keep it.

“Ready, boys?” Toot asked when we were back in our original formation at the foot of the stairs leading down from my office. I nodded, and we walked to the platform. What we looked like more than anything, I often thought, was a color-guard that had forgotten its flag.

“What am I supposed to do?” Percy called from behind the wire mesh between the storage room and the switch room.

“Watch and learn,” I called back.

“And keep yer hands off yer wiener,” Harry muttered. Toot-Toot heard him, though, and cackled.

We escorted him up onto the platform and Toot turned around on his own—the old vet in action. “Sittin down,” he said, “sittin down. sittin down, takin a seat in Old Sparky’s lap.”

I dropped to my right knee before his right leg. Dean dropped to his left knee before his left leg. It was at this point we ourselves would be most vulnerable to physical attack, should the condemned man go berserk, which, every now and then, they did. We both turned the cocked knee slightly inward, to protect the crotch area. We dropped our chins to protect our throats. And, of course, we moved to secure the ankles and neutralize the danger as fast as we could. The Chief would be wearing slippers when he took his final promenade, but “it could have been worse” isn’t much comfort to a man with a ruptured larynx. Or writhing on the floor with his balls swelling up to the size of Mason jars, for that matter, while forty or so spectators—many of them gentlemen of the press—sit in those Grange-hall chairs, watching the whole thing.

We clamped Toot-Toot’s ankles. The clamp on Dean’s side was slightly bigger, because it carried the juice. When Bitterbuck sat down tomorrow night, he would do so with a shaved left calf. Indians have very little body-hair as a rule, but we would take no chances.

While we were clamping Toot-Toots ankles, Brutal secured his right wrist. Harry stepped smoothly forward and clamped the left. When they were done, Harry nodded to Brutal, and Brutal called back to Van Hay: “Roll on one!”

I heard Percy asking Jack Van Hay what that meant (it was hard to believe how little he knew, how little he’d picked up during his time on E Block) and Van Hay’s murmur of explanation. Today Roll on one meant nothing, but when he heard Brutal say it tomorrow night, Van Hay would turn the knob that goosed the prison generator behind B Block. The witnesses would hear the genny as a steady low humming, and the lights all over the prison would brighten. In the other cellblocks, prisoners would observe those overbright lights and think it had happened, the execution was over, when in fact it was just beginning.

Brutal stepped around the chair so that Toot could see him. “Arlen Bitterbuck, you have been condemned to die in the electric chair, sentence passed by a jury of your peers and imposed by a judge in good standing in this state. God save the people of this state. Do you have anything to say before sentence is carried out?”

“Yeah,” Toot said, eyes gleaming, lips bunched in a toothless happy grin. “I want a fried chicken dinner with gravy on the taters, I want to shit in your hat, and I got to have Mae West sit on my face, because I am one horny motherfucker.”

Brutal tried to hold onto his stem expression, but it was impossible. He threw back his head and began laughing. Dean collapsed onto the edge of the platform like he’d been gutshot, head down between his knees, howling like a coyote, with one hand clapped to his brow as if to keep his brains in there where they belonged. Harry was knocking his own head against the wall and going huh-huh-huh as if he had a glob of food stuck in his throat. Even Jack Van Hay, a man not known for his sense of humor, was laughing. I felt like it myself, of course I did, but controlled it somehow. Tomorrow night it was going to be for real, and a man would die there where Toot-Toot was sitting.

“Shut up, Brutal,” I said. “You too, Dean. Harry and Toot, the next remark like that to come out of your mouth will be your last. I’ll have Van Hay roll on two for real.”

Toot gave me a grin as if to say that was a good ’un, Boss Edgecombe, a real good ’un. It faltered into a narrow, puzzled look when he saw I wasn’t answering it. “What’s wrong witchoo?” he asked.

“It’s not funny,” I said. “That’s what’s wrong with me, and if you’re not smart enough to get it, you better just keep your gob shut.” Except it was funny, in its way, and I suppose that was what had really made me mad.

I looked around, saw Brutal staring at me, still grinning a little.

“Shit,” I said, “I’m getting too old for this job.”

“Nah,” Brutal said. “You’re in your prime, Paul.” But I wasn’t, neither was he, not as far as this goddam job went, and both of us knew it. Still, the important thing was that the laughing fit had passed. That was good, because the last thing I wanted was somebody remembering Toot’s smart-aleck remark tomorrow night and getting going again. You’d say such a thing would be impossible, a guard laughing his ass off as he escorted a condemned man past the witnesses to the electric chair, but when men are under stress, anything can happen. And a thing like that, people would have talked about it for twenty years.

“Are you going to be quiet, Toot?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, his averted face that of the world’s oldest, poutiest child.

I nodded to Brutal that he should get on with the rehearsal. He took the mask from the brass hook on the back of the chair and rolled it down over Toot Toot’s head, pulling it snug under his chin, which opened the hole at the top to its widest diameter. Then Brutal leaned over, picked the wet circle of sponge out of the bucket, pressed one finger against it, then licked the tip of the finger. That done, he put the sponge back in the bucket. Tomorrow he wouldn’t. Tomorrow he would tuck it into the cap perched on the back of the chair. Not today, though; there was no need to get Toot’s old head wet.

The cap was steel, and with the straps dangling down on either side, it looked sort of like a dough boy’s helmet. Brutal put it on Old Toot-Toot’s head, snugging it down over the hole in the black headcovering.

“Gettin the cap. gettin the cap, gettin the cap,” Toot said, and now his voice sounded squeezed as well as muffled. The straps held his jaw almost closed, and I suspected Brutal had snugged it down a little tighter than he strictly had to for purposes of rehearsal. He stepped back, faced the empty seats, and said: “Arlen Bitterbuck, electricity shall now be passed through your body until you are dead, in accordance with state law. May God have mercy on your soul.”

Brutal turned to the mesh-covered rectangle. “Roll on two.”

Old Toot, perhaps trying to recapture his earlier flare of comic genius, began to buck and flail in the chair, as Old Sparky’s actual customers almost never did. “Now I’m fryin!” he cried. “Fryin! Fryyyin! Geeeaah! I’m a done tom turkey!”

Harry and Dean, I saw, were not watching this at all. They had turned away from Sparky and were looking across the empty storage room at the door leading back into my office. “Well, I’ll be goddamned,” Harry said. “One of the witnesses came a day early.”

Sitting in the doorway with its tail curled neatly around its paws, watching with its beady black oilspot eyes, was the mouse.

Chapter 13

5

The execution went well—if there was ever such a thing as “a good one” (a proposition I strongly doubt), then the execution of Arlen Bitterbuck, council elder of the Washita Cherokee, was it. He got his braids wrong—his hands were shaking too badly to make a good job of it—and his eldest daughter, a woman of thirty-odd, was allowed to plait them nice and even. She wanted to weave feathers in at the tips, the pinfeathers of a hawk, his bird, but I couldn’t allow it. They might catch fire and burn. I didn’t tell her that, of course, just said it was against regulations. She made no protest, only bowed her head and put her hands to her temples to show her disappointment and her disapproval. She conducted herself with great dignity, that woman, and by doing so practically guaranteed that her father would do the same.

The Chief left his cell with no protest or holding back when the time came. Sometimes we had to pry their fingers off the bars—I broke one or two in my time and have never forgotten the muffled snapping sound—but The Chief wasn’t one of those, thank God. He walked strong up the Green Mile to my office, and there he dropped to his knees to pray with Brother Schuster, who had driven down from the Heavenly Light Baptist Church in his flivver. Schuster gave The Chief a few psalms, and The Chief started to cry when Schuster got to the one about lying down beside the still waters. It wasn’t bad, though, no hysteria, nothing like that. I had an idea he was thinking about still water so pure and so cold it felt like it was cutting your mouth every time you drank some.

Actually, I like to see them cry a little. It’s when they don’t that I get worried.

A lot of men can’t get up from their knees again without help, but The Chief did okay in that department. He swayed a little at first, like he was lightheaded, and Dean put out a hand to steady him, but Bitterbuck had already found his balance again on his own, so out we went.

Almost all the chairs were occupied, with the people in them murmuring quietly among themselves, like folks do when they’re waiting for a wedding or a funeral to get started. That was the only time Bitterbuck faltered. I don’t know if it was any one person in particular that bothered him, or all of them together, but I could hear a low moaning start up in his throat, and all at once the arm I was holding had a drag in it that hadn’t been there before. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Harry Terwilliger moving up to cut off The Chief’s retreat if Bitterbuck all at once decided he wanted to go hard.

I tightened my grip on his elbow and tapped the inside of his arm with one finger. “Steady, Chief,” I said out of the corner of my mouth, not moving my lips. “The only thing most of these people will remember about you is how you go out, so give them something good—show them how a Washita does it.”

He glanced at me sideways and gave a little nod. Then he took one of the braids his daughter had made and kissed it. I looked to Brutal, standing at parade rest behind the chair, resplendent in his best blue uniform, all the buttons on the tunic polished and gleaming, his hat sitting square-john perfect on his big head. I gave him a little nod and he shot it right back, stepping forward to help Bitterbuck mount the platform if he needed help. Turned out he didn’t.

It was less than a minute from the time Bitterbuck sat down in the chair to the moment when Brutal called “Roll on two!” softly back over his shoulder. The lights dimmed down again, but only a little; you wouldn’t have noticed it if you hadn’t been looking for it. That meant Van Hay had pulled the switch some wit had labeled MABEL’S HAIR DRIER. There was a low humming from the cap, and Bitterbuck surged forward against the clamps and the restraining belt across his chest. Over against the wall, the prison doctor watched expressionlessly, lips thinned until his mouth looked like a single white stitch. There was no flopping and flailing, such as Old Toot-Toot had done at rehearsal, only that powerful forward surge, as a man may surge forward from the hips while in the grip of a powerful orgasm. The Chief’s blue shirt pulled tight at the buttons, creating little strained smiles of flesh between them.

And there was a smell. Not bad in itself, but unpleasant in its associations. I’ve never been able to go down in the cellar at my granddaughter’s house when they bring me there, although that’s where their little boy has his Lionel set-up, which he would dearly love to share with his great-grampa. I don’t mind the trains, as I’m sure you can guess—it’s the transformer I can’t abide. The way it hums. And the way, when it gets hot, it smells. Even after all these years, that smell reminds me of Cold Mountain.

Van Hay gave him thirty seconds, then turned the juice off. The doctor stepped forward from his place and listened with his stethoscope. There was no talk from the witnesses now. The doctor straightened up and looked through the mesh. “Disorganized,” he said, and made a twirling, cranking gesture with one finger. He had heard a few random heartbeats from Bitterbuck’s chest, probably as meaningless as the final jitters of a decapitated chicken, but it was better not to take chances. You didn’t want him suddenly sitting up on the gurney when you had him halfway through the tunnel, bawling that he felt like he was on fire.

Van Hay rolled on three and The Chief surged forward again, twisting a little from side to side in the grip of the current. When doc listened this time, he nodded. It was over. We had once again succeeded in destroying what we could not create. Some of the folks in the audience had begun talking in those low voices again; most sat with their heads down, looking at the floor, as if stunned. Or ashamed.

Harry and Dean came up with the stretcher. It was actually Percy’s job to take one end, but he didn’t know and no one had bothered to tell him. The Chief, still wearing the black silk hood, was loaded onto it by Brutal and me, and we whisked him through the door which led to the tunnel as fast as we could manage it without actually running. Smoke—too much of it—was rising from the hole in the top of the mask, and there was a horrible stench.

“Aw, man!” Percy cried, his voice wavering. ’What’s that smell?”

“Just get out of my way and stay out of it,” Brutal said, shoving past him to get to the wall where there was a mounted fire extinguisher. It was one of the old chemical kind that you had to pump. Dean, meanwhile, had stripped off the hood. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been; Bitterbuck’s left braid was smouldering like a pile of wet leaves.

“Never mind that thing,” I told Brutal. I didn’t want to have to clean a load of chemical slime off the dead man’s face before putting him in the back of the meatwagon. I slapped at The Chief’s head (Percy staring at me, wide-eyed, the whole time) until the smoke quit rising. Then we carried the body down the twelve wooden steps to the tunnel. Here it was as chilly and dank as a dungeon, with the hollow plink-plink sound of dripping water. Hanging lights with crude tin shades—they were made in the prison machine-shop—showed a brick tube that ran thirty feet under the highway. The top was curved and wet. It made me feel like a character in an Edgar Allan Poe story every time I used it.

There was a gurney waiting. We loaded Bitterbuck’s body onto it, and I made a final check to make sure his hair was out. That one braid was pretty well charred, and I was sorry to see that the cunning little bow on that side of his head was now nothing but a blackened lump.

Percy slapped the dead man’s cheek. The flat smacking sound of his hand made us all jump. Percy looked around at us with a cocky smile on his mouth, eyes glittering. Then he looked back at Bitterbuck again. “Adios, Chief,” he said. “Hope hell’s hot enough for you.”

“Don’t do that,” Brutal said, his voice hollow and declamatory in the dripping tunnel. “He’s paid what he owed. He’s square with the house again. You keep your hands off him.”

“Aw, blow it out,” Percy said, but he stepped back uneasily when Brutal moved toward him, shadow rising behind him like the shadow of that ape in the story about the Rue Morgue. But instead of grabbing at Percy, Brutal grabbed hold of the gurney and began pushing Arlen Bitterbuck slowly toward the far end of the tunnel, where his last ride was waiting, parked on the soft shoulder of the highway. The gurney’s hard rubber wheels moaned on the boards; its shadow rode the bulging brick wall, waxing and waning; Dean and Harry grasped the sheet at the foot and pulled it up over The Chief’s face, which had already begun to take on the waxy, characterless cast of all dead faces, the innocent as well as the guilty.

Chapter 14

6

When I was eighteen, my Uncle Paul—the man I was named for—died of a heart attack. My mother and dad took me to Chicago with them to attend his funeral and visit relatives from my father’s side of the family, many of whom I had never met. We were gone almost a month. In some ways that was a good trip, a necessary and exciting trip, but in another way it was horrible. I was deeply in love, you see, with the young woman who was to become my wife two weeks after my nineteenth birthday. One night when my longing for her was like a fire burning out of control in my heart and my head (oh yes, all right, and in my balls, as well), I wrote her a letter that just seemed to go on and on—I poured out my whole heart in it, never looking back to see what I’d said because I was afraid cowardice would make me stop. I didn’t stop, and when a voice in my head clamored that it would be madness to mail such a letter, that I would be giving her my naked heart to hold in her hand, I ignored it with a child’s breathless disregard of the consequences. I often wondered if Janice kept that letter, but never quite got up enough courage to ask. All I know for sure is that I did not find it when I went through her things after the funeral, and of course that by itself means nothing. I suppose I never asked because I was afraid of discovering that burning epistle meant less to her than it did to me.

It was four pages long, I thought I would never write anything longer in my life, and now look at this. All this, and the end still not in sight. If I’d known the story was going to go on this long, I might never have started. What I didn’t realize was how many doors the act of writing unlocks, as if my Dad’s old fountain pen wasn’t really a pen at all, but some strange variety of skeleton key. The mouse is probably the best example of what I’m talking about—Steamboat Willy, Mr. Jingles, the mouse on the Mile. Until I started to write, I never realized how important he (yes, he) was. The way he seemed to be looking for Delacroix before Delacroix arrived, for instance—I don’t think that ever occurred to me, not to my conscious mind, anyway, until I began to write and remember.

I guess what I’m saying is that I didn’t realize how far back I’d have to go in order to tell you about John Coffey, or how long I’d have to leave him there in his cell, a man so huge his feet didn’t just stick off the end of his bunk but hung down all the way to the floor. I don’t want you to forget him, all right? I want you to see him there, looking up at the ceiling of his cell, weeping his silent tears, or putting his arms over his face. I want you to hear him, his sighs that trembled like sobs, his occasional watery groan. These weren’t the sounds of agony and regret we sometimes heard on E Block, sharp cries with splinters of remorse in them; like his wet eyes, they were somehow removed from the pain we were used to dealing with. In a way—I know how crazy this will sound, of course I do, but there is no sense in writing something as long as this if you can’t say what feels true to your heart—in a way it was as if it was sorrow for the whole world he felt, something too big ever to be completely eased. Sometimes I sat and talked to him, as I did with all of them—talking was our biggest, most important job, as I believe I have said—and I tried to comfort him. I don’t feel that I ever did, and part of my heart was glad he was suffering, you know. Felt he deserved to suffer. I even thought sometimes of calling the governor (or getting Percy to do it—hell, he was Percy’s damn uncle, not mine) and asking for a stay of execution.

textitWe shouldn’t burn him yet, I’d say It’s still hurting him too much, biting into him too much, twisting in his guts like a nice sharp stick. Give him another ninety days, your honor, sir. Let him go on doing to himself what we can’t do to him.

It’s that John Coffey I’d have you keep to one side of your mind while I finish catching up to where I started—that John Coffey lying on his bunk, that John Coffey who was afraid of the dark perhaps with good reason, for in the dark might not two shapes with blonde curls—no longer little girls but avenging harpies—be waiting for him? That John Coffey whose eyes were always streaming tears, like blood from a wound that can never heal.

Chapter 15

7

So The Chief burned and The President walked—as far as C Block, anyway, which was home to most of Cold Mountain’s hundred and fifty lifers. Life for The Pres turned out to be twelve years. He was drowned in the prison laundry in 1944. Not the Cold Mountain prison laundry; Cold Mountain closed in 1933. I don’t suppose it mattered much to the inmates—wars is walls, as the cons say, and Old Sparky was every bit as lethal in his own little stone death chamber, I reckon, as he’d ever been in the storage room at Cold Mountain.

As for The Pres, someone shoved him face-first into a vat of dry-cleaning fluid and held him there. When the guards pulled him out again, his face was almost entirely gone. They had to ID him by his fingerprints. On the whole, he might have been better off with Old Sparky …but then he never would have had those extra twelve years, would he? I doubt he thought much about them, though, in the last minute or so of his life, when his lungs were trying to learn how to breathe Hexlite and lye cleanser.

They never caught whoever did for him. By then I was out of the corrections line of work, but Harry Terwilliger wrote and told me. “He got commuted mostly because he was white,” Harry wrote, “but he got it in the end, just the same. I just think of it as a long stay of execution that finally ran out.”

There was a quiet time for us in E Block, once The Pres was gone. Harry and Dean were temporarily reassigned, and it was just me, Brutal, and Percy on the Green Mile for a little bit. Which actually meant just me and Brutal, because Percy kept pretty much to himself. I tell you, that young man was a genius at finding things not to do. And every so often (but only when Percy wasn’t around), the other guys would show up to have what Harry liked to call “a good gab.” On many of these occasions the mouse would also show up. We’d feed him and he’d sit there eating, just as solemn as Solomon, watching us with his bright little oilspot eyes.

That was a good few weeks, calm and easy even with Percy’s more than occasional carping. But all good things come to an end, and on a rainy Monday in late July—have I told you how rainy and dank that summer was?—I found myself sitting on the bunk of an open cell and waiting for Eduard Delacroix.

He came with an unexpected bang. The door leading into the exercise yard slammed open, letting in a flood of light, there was a confused rattle of chains, a frightened voice babbling away in a mixture of English and Cajun French (a patois the cons at Cold Mountain used to call da bayou), and Brutal hollering, “Hey! Quit it! For Chrissakes! Quit it, Percy!”

I had been half-dozing on what was to become Delacroix’s bunk, but I was up in a hurry, my heart slugging away hard in my chest. Noise of that kind on E Block almost never happened until Percy came; he brought it along with him like a bad smell.

“Come on, you fuckin French-fried faggot!” Percy yelled, ignoring Brutal completely. And here he came, dragging a guy not much bigger than a bowling pin by one arm. In his other hand, Percy had his baton. His teeth were bared in a strained grimace, and his face was bright red. Yet he did not look entirely unhappy. Delacroix was trying to keep up with him, but he had the legirons on, and no matter how fast he shuffled his feet, Percy pulled him along faster. I sprang out of the cell just in time to catch him as he fell, and that was how Del and I were introduced.

Percy rounded on him, baton raised, and I held him back with one arm. Brutal came puffing up to us, looking as shocked and nonplussed by all this as I felt.

“Don’t let him hit me no mo, m’sieu,” Delacroix babbled. “S’il vous plait, s’il vous plait!”

“Let me at im, let me at im!” Percy cried, lunging forward. He began to hit at Delacroix’s shoulders with his baton. Delacroix held his arms up, screaming, and the stick went whap-whap-whap against the sleeves of his blue prison shirt. I saw him that night with the shirt off, and that boy had bruises from Christmas to Easter. Seeing them made me feel bad. He was a murderer, and nobody’s darling, but that’s not the way we did things on E Block. Not until Percy came, anyhow.

“Whoa! Whoa!” I roared. “Quit that! What’s it all about, anyway?” I was trying to get my body in between Delacroix’s and Percy’s, but it wasn’t working very well. Percy’s club continued to flail away, now on one side of me and now on the other. Sooner or later he was going to bring one down on me instead of on his intended target, and then there was going to be a brawl right here in this corridor, no matter who his relations were. I wouldn’t be able to help myself, and Brutal was apt to join in. In some ways, you know, I wish we’d done it. It might have changed some of the things that happened later on.

“Fucking faggot! I’ll teach you to keep your hands off me, you lousy bum-puncher!”

Whap! Whap! Whap! And now Delacroix was bleeding from one ear and screaming. I gave up trying to shield him, grabbed him by one shoulder, and hurled him into his cell, where he went sprawling on the bunk. Percy darted around me and gave him a final hard whap on the butt—one to go on, you could say. Then Brutal grabbed him—Percy—I mean—by the shoulders and hauled him across the corridor.

I grabbed the cell door and ran it shut on its tracks. Then I turned to Percy, my shock and bewilderment at war with pure fury. Percy had been around about several months at that point, long enough for all of us to decide we didn’t like him very much, but that was the first time I fully understood how out of control he was.

He stood watching me, not entirely without fear—he was a coward at heart, I never had any doubt of that —but still confident that his connections would protect him. In that he was correct. I suspect there are people who wouldn’t understand why that was, even after all I’ve said, but they would be people who only know the phrase Great Depression from the history books. If you were there, it was a lot more than a phrase in a book, and if you had a steady job, brother, you’d do almost anything to keep it.

The color was fading out of Percy’s face a little by then, but his cheeks were still flushed, and his hair, which was usually swept back and gleaming with brilliantine, had tumbled over his forehead.

“What in the Christ was that all about?” I asked. “I have never—I have never!—had a prisoner beaten onto my block before!”

“Little fag bastard tried to cop my joint when I pulled him out of the van,” Percy said. “He had it coming, and I’d do it again.”

I looked at him, too flabbergasted for words. I couldn’t imagine the most predatory homosexual on God’s green earth doing what Percy had just described. Preparing to move into a crossbar apartment on the Green Mile did not, as a rule, put even the most deviant of prisoners in a sexy mood.

I looked back at Delacroix, cowering on his bunk with his arms still up to protect his face. There were cuffs on his wrists and a chain running between his ankles. Then I turned to Percy “Get out of here,” I said. “I’ll want to talk to you later.”

“Is this going to be in your report?” he demanded truculently. “Because if it is, I can make a report of my own, you know.”

I didn’t want to make a report; I only wanted him out of my sight. I told him so.

“The matter’s closed,” I finished. I saw Brutal looking at me disapprovingly, but ignored it. “Go on, get out of here. Go over to Admin and tell them you’re supposed to read letters and help in the package room.”

“Sure.” He had his composure back, or the crackheaded arrogance that served him as composure. He brushed his hair back from his forehead with his hands—soft and white and small, the hands of a girl in her early teens, you would have thought—and then approached the cell. Delacroix saw him, and he cringed back even farther on his bunk, gibbering in a mixture of English and stewpot French.

“I ain’t done with you, Pierre,” he said, then jumped as one of Brutal’s huge hands fell on his shoulder.

“Yes you are,” Brutal said. “Now go on. Get in the breeze!”

“You don’t scare me, you know,” Percy said. “Not a bit!” His eyes shifted to me. “Either of you.” But we did. You could see that in his eyes as clear as day, and it made him even more dangerous. A guy like Percy doesn’t even know himself what he means to do from minute to minute and second to second.

What he did right then was turn away from us and go walking up the corridor in long, arrogant strides. He had shown the world what happened when scrawny, half-bald little Frenchmen tried to cop his joint, by God, and he was leaving the field a victor.

I went through my set speech, all about how we had the radio—Make Believe Ballroom and Our Gal Sunday, and how we’d treat him jake if he did the same for us. That little homily was not what you’d call one of my great successes. He cried all the way through it, sitting huddled up at the foot of his bunk, as far from me as he could get without actually fading into the corner. He cringed every time I moved, and I don’t think he heard one word in six. Probably just as well. I don’t think that particular homily made a whole lot of sense, anyway.

Fifteen minutes later I was back at the desk, where a shaken-looking Brutus Howell was sitting and licking the tip of the pencil we kept with the visitors’ book. “Will you stop that before you poison yourself, for God’s sake?” I asked.

“Christ almighty Jesus,” he said, putting the pencil down. “I never want to have another hooraw like that with a prisoner coming on the block.”

“My Daddy always used to say things come in threes,” I said.

“Well, I hope your Daddy was full of shit on that subject,” Brutal said, but of course he wasn’t. There was a squall when John Coffey came in, and a fullblown storm when “Wild Bill” joined us—it’s funny, but things really do seem to come in threes. The story of our introduction to Wild Bill, how he came onto the Mile trying to commit murder, is something I’ll get to shortly; fair warning.

“What’s this about Delacroix copping his joint?” I asked.

Brutal snorted. “He was ankle-chained and ole Percy was just pulling him too fast, that’s all. He stumbled and started to fall as he got out of the stagecoach. He put his hands out same as anyone would when they start to fall, and one of them brushed the front of Percy’s pants. It was a complete accident!”

“Did Percy know that, do you think?” I asked. “Was he maybe using it as an excuse just because he felt like whaling on Delacroix a little bit? Showing him who bosses the shooting match around here?”

Brutal nodded slowly. “Yeah. I think that was probably it.”

“We have to watch him, then,” I said, and ran my hands, through my hair. As if the job wasn’t hard enough. “God, I hate this. I hate him.

“Me, too. And you want to know something else, Paul? I don’t understand him. He’s got connections, I understand that, all right, but why would he use them to get a job on the Green fucking Mile? Anywhere in the state pen, for that matter? Why not as a page in the state senate, or the guy who makes the lieutenant governor’s appointments? Surely his people could’ve gotten him something better if he’d asked them, so why here?

I shook my head. I didn’t know. There were a lot of things I didn’t know then. I suppose I was naive.

Chapter 16

8

After that, things went back to normal again …for awhile, at least. Down in the county seat, the state was preparing to bring John Coffey to trial, and Trapingus County Sheriff Homer Cribus was pooh-poohing the idea that a lynch-mob might hurry justice along a little bit. None of that mattered to us; on E Block, no one paid much attention to the news. Life on the Green Mile was, in a way, like life in a soundproof room. From time to time you heard mutterings that were probably explosions in the outside world, but that was about all. They wouldn’t hurry with John Coffey; they’d want to make damned sure of him.

On a couple of occasions Percy got to ragging Delacroix, and the second time I pulled him aside and told him to come up to my office. It wasn’t my first interview with Percy on the subject of his behavior, and it wouldn’t be the last, but it was prompted by what, was probably the clearest understanding of what he was. He had the heart of a cruel boy who goes to the zoo not so he can study the animals but so he can throw stones at them in their cages.

“You stay away from him, now, you hear?” I said. “Unless I give you a specific order, just stay the hell away from him.”

Percy combed his hair back, then patted at it with his sweet little hands. That boy just loved touching his hair. “I wasn’t doing nothing to him,” he said. “Only asking how it felt to know you had burned up some babies, is all.” Percy gave me a round-eyed, innocent stare.

“You quit with it, or there’ll be a report,” I said.

He laughed. “Make any report you want,” he said. “Then I’ll turn around and make my own. Just like I told you when he came in. We’ll see who comes off the best.”

I leaned forward, hands folded on my desk, and spoke in a tone I hoped would sound like a friend being confidential. “Brutus Howell doesn’t like you much,” I said. “And when Brutal doesn’t like someone, he’s been known to make his own report. He isn’t much shakes with a pen, and he can’t quit from licking that pencil, so he’s apt to report with his fists. If you know what I mean.”

Percy’s complacent little smile faltered. “What are you trying to say”

“I’m not trying to say anything. I have said it. And if you tell any of your …friends …about this discussion, I’ll say you made the whole thing up.” I looked at him all wide-eyed and earnest. “Besides, I’m trying to be your friend, Percy. A word to the wise is sufficient, they say. And why would you want to get into it with Delacroix in the first place? He’s not worth it.”

And for awhile that worked. There was peace. A couple of times I was even able to send Percy with Dean or Harry when Delacroix’s time to shower had rolled around. We had the radio at night, Delacroix began to relax a little into the scant routine of E Block, and there was peace.

Then, one night, I heard him laughing.

Harry Terwilliger was on the desk, and soon he was laughing, too. I got up and went on down to Delacroix’s cell to see what he possibly had to laugh about.

“Look, Cap’n” he said when he saw me. “I done tame me a mouse!”

It was Steamboat Willy. He was in Delacroix’s cell. More: he was sitting on Delacroix’s shoulder and looking calmly out through the bars at us with his little oildrop eyes. His tail was curled around his paws, and he looked completely at peace. As for Delacroix—friend, you wouldn’t have known it was the same man who’d sat cringing and shuddering at the foot of his bunk not a week before. He looked like my daughter used to on Christmas morning, when she came down the stairs and saw the presents.

“Watch dis!” Delacroix said. The mouse was sitting on his right shoulder. Delacroix stretched out his left arm. The mouse scampered up to the top of Delacroix’s head, using the man’s hair (which was thick enough in back, at least) to climb up. Then he scampered down the other side, Delacroix giggling as his tail tickled the side of his neck. The mouse ran all the way down his arm to his wrist, then turned, scampered back up to Delacroix’s left shoulder, and curled his tail around his feet again.

“I’ll be damned,” Harry said.

“I train him to do that,” Delacroix said proudly. I thought, In a pig’s ass you did, but kept my mouth shut. “His name is Mr. Jingles.”

“Nah,” Harry said goodnaturedly. “It’s Steamboat Willy, like in the pitcher-show. Boss Howell named him.”

“It’s Mr. Jingles,” Delacroix said. On any other subject he would have told you that shit was Shinola, if you wanted him to, but on the subject of the mouse’s name he was perfectly adamant. “He whisper it in my ear. Cap’n, can I have a box for him? Can I have a box for my mous’, so he can sleep in here wit me?” His voice began to fall into wheedling tones I had heard a thousand times before. “I put him under my bunk and he never be a scrid of trouble, not one.”

“Your English gets a hell of a lot better when you want something,” I said, stalling for time.

“Oh-oh,” Harry murmured, nudging me. “Here comes trouble.”

But Percy didn’t look like trouble to me, not that night. He wasn’t running his hands through his hair or fiddling with that baton of his, and the top button of his uniform shirt was actually undone. It was the first time I’d seen him that way, and it was amazing, what a change a little thing like that could make. Mostly, though, what struck me was the expression on his face. There was a calmness there. Not serenity —I don’t think Percy Wetmore had a serene bone in his body—but the look of a man who has discovered he can wait for the things he wants. It was quite a change from the young man I’d had to threaten with Brutus Howell’s fists only a few days before.

Delacroix didn’t see the change, though; he cringed against the wall of his cell, drawing his knees up to his chest. His eyes seemed to grow until they were taking up half his face. The mouse scampered up on his bald pate and sat there. I don’t know if he remembered that he also had reason to distrust Percy, but it certainly looked as if he did. Probably it was just smelling the little Frenchman’s fear, and reacting off that.

“Well, well,” Percy said. “Looks like you found yourself a friend, Eddie.”

Delacroix tried to reply—some hollow defiance about what would happen to Percy if Percy hurt his new pal would have been my guess—but nothing came out. His lower lip trembled a little, but that was all. On top of his head, Mr. Jingles wasn’t trembling. He sat perfectly still with his back feet in Delacroix’s hair and his front ones splayed on Delacroix’s bald looking at Percy, seeming to size him up. The way you’d size up an old enemy.

Percy looked at me. “Isn’t that the same one I chased? The one that lives in the restraint room?”

I nodded. I had an idea Percy hadn’t seen the newly named Mr. Jingles since that last chase, and he showed no signs of wanting to chase it now.

“Yes, that’s the one,” I said. “Only Delacroix there says his name is Mr. Jingles, not Steamboat Willy. Says the mouse whispered it in his ear.”

“Is that so,” Percy said. “Wonders never cease, do they?” I half-expected him to pull out his baton and start tapping it against the bars, just to show Delacroix who was boss, but he only stood there with his hands on his hips, looking in.

And for no reason I could have told you in words, I said: “Delacroix there was just asking for a box, Percy. He thinks that mouse will sleep in it, I guess. That he can keep it for a pet.” I loaded my voice with skepticism, and sensed more than saw Harry looking at me in surprise. “What do you think about that?”

“I think it’ll probably shit up his nose some night while he’s sleeping and then run away,” Percy said evenly, “but I guess that’s the French boy’s lookout. I seen a pretty nice cigar box on Toot-Toot’s cart the other night. I don’t know if he’d give it away, though. Probably want a nickel for it, maybe even a dime.”

Now I did risk a glance at Harry, and saw his mouth hanging open. This wasn’t quite like the change in Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning, after the ghosts had had their way with him, but it was damned close.

Percy leaned closer to Delacroix, putting his face between the bars. Delacroix shrank back even farther. I swear to God that he would have melted into that wall if he’d been able.

“You got a nickel or maybe as much as a dime to pay for a cigar box, you lugoon?” he asked.

“I got four pennies,", Delacroix said. “I give them for a box, if it a good one, s’il est bon.

“I’ll tell you what,” Percy said. “If that toothless old whoremaster will sell you that Corona box for four cents, I’ll sneak some cotton batting out of the dispensary to line it with. We’ll make us a regular Mousie Hilton, before we’re through.” He shifted his eyes to me. “I’m supposed to write a switch-room report about Bitterbuck,” he said. “Is there some pens in your office, Paul?”

“Yes, indeed,” I said. “Forms, too. Lefthand top drawer.”

“Well, that’s aces,” he said, and went swaggering off.

Harry and I looked at each other. “Is he sick, do you think?” Harry asked. “Maybe went to his doctor and found out he’s only got three months to live?”

I told him I didn’t have the slightest idea what was up. It was the truth then, and for awhile after, but I found out in time. And a few years later, I had an interesting supper-table conversation with Hal Moores. By then we could talk freely, what with him being retired and me being at the Boys’ Correctional. It was one of those meals where you drink too much and eat too little, and tongues get loosened. Hal told me that Percy had been in to complain about me and about life on the Mile in general. This was just after Delacroix came on the block, and Brutal and I had kept Percy from beating him half to death. What had griped Percy the most was me telling him to get out of my sight. He didn’t think a man who was related to the governor should have to put up with talk like that.

Well, Moores told me, he had stood Percy off for as long as he could, and when it became dear to him that Percy was going to try pulling some strings to get me reprimanded and moved to another part of the prison at the very least, he, Moores, had pulled Percy into his office and told him that if he quit rocking the boat, Moores would make sure that Percy was out front for Delacroix’s execution. That he would, in fact, be placed right beside the chair. I would be in charge, as always, but the witnesses wouldn’t know that; to them it would look as if Mr. Percy Wetmore was boss of the cotillion. Moores wasn’t promising any more than what we’d already discussed and I’d gone along with, but Percy didn’t know that. He agreed to leave off his threats to have me reassigned, and the atmosphere on E Block sweetened. He had even agreed that Delacroix could keep Percy’s old nemesis as a pet. It’s amazing how some men can change, given the right incentive; in Percy’s case, all Warden Moores had to offer was the chance to take a bald little Frenchman’s life.

Chapter 17

9

Toot-Toot felt that four cents was far too little for a prime Corona cigar box, and in that he was probably right—cigar boxes were highly prized objects in prison. A thousand different small items could be stored in them, the smell was pleasant, and there was something about them that reminded our customers of what it was like to be free men. Because cigarettes were permitted in prison but cigars were not, I imagine.

Dean Stanton, who was back on the block by then, added a penny to the pot, and I kicked one in, as well. When Toot still proved reluctant, Brutal went to work on him, first telling him he ought to be ashamed of himself for behaving like such a cheapskate, then promising him that he, Brutus Howell, would personally put that Corona box back in Toot’s hands the day after Delacroix’s execution. “Six cents might or might not be enough if you was speaking about selling that cigar box, we could have a good old barber-shop argument about that,” Brutal said, “but you have to admit it’s a great price for renting one. He’s gonna walk the Mile in a month, six weeks at the very outside. Why, that box’ll be back on the shelf under your cart almost before you know it’s gone.”

“He could get a soft-hearted judge to give im a stay and still be here to sing ’Should old acquaintances be forgot,”’ Toot said, but he knew better and Brutal knew he did. Old Toot-Toot had been pushing that damned Bible-quoting cart of his around Cold Mountain since Pony Express days, practically, and he had plenty of sources, better than ours, I thought then. He knew Delacroix was fresh out of soft-hearted judges. All he had left to hope for was the governor, who as a rule didn’t issue clemency to folks who had baked half a dozen of his constituents.

“Even if he don’t get a stay, that mouse’d be shitting in that box until October, maybe even Thanksgiving,” Toot argued, but Brutal could see he was weakening. “Who gonna buy a cigar box some mouse been using for a toilet?”

“Oh jeez-Louise,” Brutal said. “That’s the numbest thing I’ve ever heard you say, Toot. I mean, that takes the cake. First, Delacroix will keep the box clean enough to eat a church dinner out of—the way he loves that mouse, he’d lick it clean if that’s what it took.”

“Easy on dat stuff,” Toot said, wrinkling his nose.

“Second,” Brutal went on, “mouse-shit is no big deal, anyway. It’s just hard little pellets, looks like birdshot. Shake it right out. Nothing to it!”

Old Toot knew better than to carry his protest any further; he’d been on the yard long enough to understand when he could afford to face into the breeze and when he’d do better to bend in the hurricane. This wasn’t exactly a hurricane, but we bluesuits liked the mouse, and we liked the idea of Delacroix having the mouse, and that meant it was at least a gale. So Delacroix got his box, and Percy was as good as his word—two days later the bottom was lined with soft pads of cotton batting from the dispensary. Percy handed them over himself, and I could see the fear in Delacroix’s eyes as he reached out through the bars to take them. He was afraid Percy would grab his hand and break his fingers. I was a little afraid of it too, but no such thing happened. That was the closest I ever came to liking Percy, but even then it was hard to mistake the look of cool amusement in his eyes. Delacroix had a pet; Percy had one too. Delacroix would keep his, petting it and loving it as long as he could; Percy would wait patiently (as patiently as a man like him could anyway), and then burn his alive.

“Mousie Hilton, open for business.” Harry said. “The only question is, will the little bugger use it?”

That question was answered as soon as Delacroix caught Mr. Jingles up in one hand and lowered him gently into the box. The mouse snuggled into the white cotton as if it were Aunt Bea’s comforter, and that was his home from then until …well, I’ll get to the end of Mr. Jingles’s story in good time.

Old Toot-Toots worries that the cigar box would, fill up with mouse-shit proved to be entirely groundless. I never saw a single turd in there, and Delacroix said he never did, either, anywhere in his cell, for that matter. Much later, around the time Brutal showed me the hole in the beam and we found the colored splinters, I moved a chair out of the restraint room’s east corner and found a little pile of mouse turds back there. He had always gone back to the same place to do his business, seemingly, and as far from us as he could get. Here’s another thing: I never saw him peeing, and usually mice can hardly turn the faucet off for two minutes at a time, especially while they’re eating. I told you, the damned thing was one of God’s mysteries.

A week or so after Mr. Jingles had settled into the cigar box, Delacroix called me and Brutal down to his cell to see something. He did that so much it was annoying—if Mr. Jingles so much as rolled over on his back with his paws in the air, it was the cutest thing on God’s earth, as far as that half-pint Cajun was concerned—but this time what he was up to really was sort of amusing.

Delacroix had been pretty much forgotten by the world following his conviction, but he had one relation —an old maiden aunt, I believe—who wrote him once a week. She had also sent him an enormous bag of peppermint candies, the sort which are marketed under the name Canada Mints these days. They looked like big pink pills. Delacroix was not allowed to have the whole bag at once, naturally—it was a five-pounder, and he would have gobbled them until he had to go to the infirmary with stomach-gripes. Like almost every murderer we ever had on the Mile, he had absolutely no understanding of moderation. We’d give them out to him half a dozen at a time, and only then if he remembered to ask.

Mr. Jingles was sitting beside Delacroix on the bunk when we got down there, holding one of those pink candies in his paws and munching contentedly away at it. Delacroix was simply overcome with delight— he was like a classical pianist watching his five-year-old son play his first halting exercises. But don’t get me wrong; it was funny, a real hoot. The candy was half the size of Mr. Jingles, and his whitefurred belly was already distended from it.

“Take it away from him, Eddie,” Brutal said, half-laughing and half-horrified. “Christ almighty Jesus, he’ll eat till he busts. I can smell that peppermint from here. How many have you let him have?”

“This his second,” Delacroix said, looking a little nervously at Mr. Jingles’s belly. “You really think he …you know …bus’ his guts?”

“Might,” Brutal said.

That was enough authority for Delacroix. He reached for the half-eaten pink mint. I expected the mouse to nip him, but Mr. Jingles gave over that mint—what remained of it, anyway—as meek as could be. I looked at Brutal, and Brutal gave his head a little shake as if to say no, he didn’t understand it, either. Then Mr. Jingles plopped down into his box and lay there on his side in an exhausted way that made all three of us laugh. After that, we got used to seeing the mouse sitting beside Delacroix, holding a mint and munching away on it just as neatly as an old lady at an afternoon tea-party, both of them surrounded by what I later smelled in that hole in the beam—the half-bitter, half-sweet smell of peppermint candy.

There’s one more thing to tell you about Mr. Jingles before moving on to the arrival of William Wharton, which was when the cyclone really touched down on E Block. A week or so after the incident of the peppermint candies—around the time when we’d pretty much decided Delacroix wasn’t going to feed his pet to death, in other words—the Frenchman called me down to his cell. I was on my own for the time being, Brutal over at the commissary for something, and according to the regs, I was not supposed to approach a prisoner in such circumstances. But since I probably could have shot-putted Delacroix twenty yards one-handed on a good day, I decided to break the rule and see what he wanted.

“Watch this, Boss Edgecombe,” he said. “You gonna see what Mr. Jingles can do!” He reached behind the cigar box and brought up a small wooden spool.

“Where’d you get that?” I asked him, although I supposed I knew. There was really only one person he could have gotten it from.

“Old Toot-Toot,” he said. ’Watch this.”

I was already watching, and could see Mr. Jingles in his box, standing up with his small front paws propped on the edge, his black eyes fixed on the spool Delacroix was holding between the thumb and first finger of his right hand. I felt a funny little chill go up my back. I had never seen a mere mouse attend to something with such sharpness—with such intelligence. I don’t really believe that Mr. Jingles was a supernatural visitation, and if I have given you that idea, I’m sorry, but I have never doubted that he was a genius of his kind.

Delacroix bent over and rolled the threadless spool across the floor of his cell. It went easily, like a pair of wheels connected by an axle. The mouse was out of his box in a flash and across the floor after it, like a dog chasing after a stick. I exclaimed with surprise, and Delacroix grinned.

The spool hit the wall and rebounded. Mr. Jingles went around it and pushed it back to the bunk, switching from one end of the spool to the other whenever it looked like it was going to veer offcourse. He pushed the spool until it hit Delacroix’s foot. Then he looked up at him for a moment, as if to make sure Delacroix had no more immediate tasks for him (a few arithmetic problems to solve, perhaps, or some Latin to parse). Apparently satisfied on this score, Mr. Jingles went back to the cigar box and settled down in it again.

“You taught him that,” I said.

“Yessir, Boss Edgecombe,” Delacroix said, his smile only slightly dissembling. “He fetch it every time. Smart as hell, ain’t he?”

“And the spool?” I asked. “How did you know to fetch that for him, Eddie?”

“He whisper in my ear that he want it,” Delacroix said serenely. “Same as he whisper his name.”

Delacroix showed all the other guys his mouse’s trick …all except Percy. To Delacroix, it didn’t matter that Percy had suggested the cigar box and procured the cotton with which to line it. Delacroix was like some dogs: kick them once and they never trust you again, no matter how nice you are to them.

I can hear Delacroix now, yelling, Hey, you guys! Come and see what Mr. Jingles can do! And them going down in a bluesuit cluster—Brutal, Harry, Dean, even Bill Dodge. All of them had been properly amazed, too, the same as I had been.

Three or four days after Mr. Jingles started doing the trick with the spool, Harry Terwilliger rummaged through the arts and crafts stuff we kept in the restraint room, found the Crayolas, and brought them to Delacroix with a smile that was almost embarrassed. “I thought you might like to make that spool different colors,” he said. “Then your little pal’d be like a circus mouse, or something.”

“A circus mouse!” Delacroix said, looking completely, rapturously happy. I suppose he was completely happy, maybe for the first time in his whole miserable life. “That just what he is, too! A circus mouse! When I get outta here, he gonna make me rich, like inna circus! You see if he don’t.”

Percy Wetmore would no doubt have pointed out to Delacroix that when he left Cold Mountain, he’d be riding in an ambulance that didn’t need to run its light or siren, but Harry knew better. He just told Delacroix to make the spool as colorful as he could as quick as he could, because he’d have to take the crayons back after dinner.

Del made it colorful, all right. When he was done, one end of the spool was yellow, the other end was green, and the drum in the middle was firehouse red. We got used to hearing Delacroix trumpet, “Maintenant, m’sieurs et mesdames! Le cirque presentement le mous’ amusant et amazeant!” That wasn’t exactly it, but it gives you an idea of that stewpot French of his. Then he’d make this sound way down in his throat—I think it was supposed to represent a drumroll—and fling the spool. Mr. Jingles would be after it in a flash, either nosing it back or rolling it with his paws. That second way really was something you would have paid to see in a circus, I think. Delacroix and his mouse and his mouse’s brightly colored spool were our chief amusements at the time that John Coffey came into our care and custody, and that was the way things remained for awhile. Then my urinary infection, which had lain still for awhile, came back, and William Wharton arrived, and all hell broke loose.

Chapter 18

10

The dates have mostly slipped out of my head. I suppose I could have my granddaughter, Danielle, look some of them out of the old newspaper files, but what would be the point? The most important of them, like the day we came down to Delacroix’s cell and found the mouse sitting on his shoulder, or the day William Wharton came on the block and almost killed Dean Stanton, would not be in the papers, anyway. Maybe it’s better to go on just as I have been; in the end, I guess the dates don’t matter much, if you can remember the things you saw and keep them in the right order.

I know that things got squeezed together a little. When Delacroix’s DOE papers finally came to me from Curtis Anderson’s office, I was amazed to see that our Cajun pal’s date with Old Sparky had been advanced from when we had expected, a thing that was almost unheard of, even in those days when you didn’t have to move half of heaven and all the earth to execute a man. It was a matter of two days, I think, from the twenty-seventh of October to the twenty-fifth. Don’t hold me to it exactly, but I know that’s close; I remember thinking that Toot was going to get his Corona box back even sooner than he had expected.

Wharton, meanwhile, got to us later than expected. For one thing, his trial ran longer than Anderson’s usually reliable sources had thought it would (when it came to Wild Billy, nothing was reliable, we would soon discover, including our time-tested and supposedly foolproof methods of prisoner control). Then, after he had been found guilty—that much, at least, went according to the script—he was taken to Indianola General Hospital for tests. He had had a number of supposed seizures during the trial, twice serious enough to send him crashing to the floor, where he lay shaking and flopping and drumming his feet on the boards. Wharton’s court-appointed lawyer claimed he suffered from “epilepsy spells” and had committed his crimes while of unsound mind; the prosecution claimed the fits were the sham acting of a coward desperate to save his own life. After observing the so-called “epilepsy spells” at first hand, the jury decided the fits were an act. The judge concurred but ordered a series of pre-sentencing tests after the verdict came down. God knows why; perhaps he was only curious.

It’s a blue-eyed wonder that Wharton didn’t escape from the hospital (and the irony that Warden Moore’s wife, Melinda, was in the same hospital at the same time did not escape any of us), but he didn’t. They had him surrounded by guards, I suppose, and perhaps he still had hopes of being declared incompetent by reason of epilepsy, if there is such a thing.

He wasn’t. The doctors found nothing wrong with his brain—physiologically, at least—and Billy “the Kid” Wharton was at last bound for Cold Mountain. That might have been around the sixteenth or the eighteenth; it’s my recollection that Wharton arrived about two weeks after John Coffey and a week or ten days before Delacroix walked the Green Mile.

The day our new psychopath joined us was an eventful one for me. I woke up at four that morning with my groin throbbing and my penis feeling hot and clogged and swollen. Even before I swung my feet out of bed, I knew that my urinary infection wasn’t getting better, as I had hoped. It had been a brief turn for the better, that was all, and it was over.

I went out to the privy to do my business—this was at least three years before we put in our first water-closet—and had gotten no further than the woodpile at the comer of the house when I realized I couldn’t hold it any longer. I lowered my pajama pants just as the urine started to flow, and that flow was accompanied by the most excruciating. pain of my entire life. I passed a gall-stone in 1956, and I know people say that is the worst, but that gall-stone was like a touch of acid indigestion compared to this outrage.

My knees came unhinged and I fell heavily onto them, tearing out the seat of my pajama pants when I spread my legs to keep from losing my balance and going face-first into a puddle of my own piss. I still might have gone over if I hadn’t grabbed one of the woodpile logs with my left hand. All that, though, could have been going on in Australia, or even on another planet. All I was concerned with was the pain that had set me on fire; my lower belly was burning, and my penis—an organ which had gone mostly forgotten by me except when providing me the most intense physical pleasure a man can experience now felt as if it were melting; I expected to look down and see blood gushing from its tip, but it appeared to be a perfectly ordinary stream of urine.

I hung onto the woodpile with one hand and put the other across my mouth, concentrating on keeping my mouth shut. I did not want to frighten my wife awake with a scream. It seemed that I went on pissing forever, but at last the stream dried up. By then the pain had sunk deep into my stomach and my testicles, biting like rusty teeth. For a long while—it might have been as long as a minute—I was physically incapable of getting up. At last the pain began to abate, and I struggled to my feet. I looked at my urine, already soaking into the ground, and wondered if any sane God could make a world where such a little bit of dampness could come at the cost of such horrendous pain.

I would call in sick, I thought, and go see Dr. Sadler after all. I didn’t want the stink and the queasiness of Dr. Sadler’s sulfa tablets, but anything would be better than kneeling beside the woodpile, trying not to scream while my prick was reporting that it had apparently been doused with coal-oil and set afire.

Then, as I was swallowing aspirin in our kitchen and listening to Jan snore lightly in the other room, I remembered that today was the day William Wharton was scheduled on the block, and that Brutal wouldn’t be there—the roster had him over on the other side of the prison, helping to move the rest of the library and some leftover infirmary equipment to the new building. One thing I didn’t feel right about in spite of my pain was leaving Wharton to Dean and Harry. They were good men, but Curtis Anderson’s report had suggested that William Wharton was exceptionally bad news. This man just doesn’t care, he had written, underlining for emphasis.

By then the pain had abated some, and I could think. The best idea, it seemed to me, was to leave for the prison early. I could get there at six, which was the time Warden Moores usually came in. He could get Brutus Howell reassigned to E Block long enough for Wharton’s reception, and I’d make my long-overdue trip to the doctor. Cold Mountain was actually on my way.

Twice on the twenty-mile ride to the Penitentiary that sudden need to urinate overcame me. Both times I was able to pull over and take care of the problem without embarrassing myself (for one thing, traffic on country roads at such an hour was all but nonexistent). Neither of these two voidings was as painful as the one that had taken me off my feet on the way to the privy, but both times I had to clutch the passenger-side doorhandle of my little Ford coupe to hold myself up, and I could feel sweat running down my hot face. I was sick, all right, good and sick.

I made it, though, drove in through the south gate, parked in my usual place, and went right up to see the warden. It was going on six o’clock by then. Miss Hannah’s office was empty—she wouldn’t be in until the relatively civilized hour of seven—but the light was on in Moores’s office; I could see it through the pebbled glass. I gave a perfunctory knock and opened the door. Moores looked up, startled to see anyone at that unusual hour, and I would have given a great deal not to have been the one to see him in that condition, with his face naked and unguarded. His white hair, usually so neatly combed, was sticking up in tufts and tangles; his hands were in it, yanking and pulling, when I walked in. His eyes were raw, the skin beneath them puffy and swollen. His palsy was the worst I had ever seen it; he looked like a man who had just come inside after a long walk on a terribly cold night.

“Hal, I’m sorry, I’ll come back—!” I began.

“No,” he said. “Please, Paul. Come in. Shut the door and come in. I need someone now, if I ever needed anyone in my whole life. Shut the door and come in.”

I did as he asked, forgetting my own pain for the first time since I’d awakened that morning.

“It’s a brain tumor,” Moores said. “They got X-ray pictures of it. They seemed real pleased with their pictures, actually. One of them said they may be the best ones anyone’s ever gotten, at least so far; said they’re going to publish them in some biggety medical journal up in New England. It’s the size of a lemon, they said, and way down deep inside, where they can’t operate. They say she’ll be dead by Christmas. I haven’t told her. I can’t think how. I can’t think how for the life of me.”

Then he began to cry, big, gasping sobs that filled me with both pity and a kind of terror—when a man who keeps himself as tightly guarded as Hal Moores finally does lose control, it’s frightening to watch. I stood there for a moment, then went to him and put my arm around his shoulders. He groped out for me with both of his own arms, like a drowning man, and began to sob against my stomach, all restraint washed away. Later, after he got himself under control, he apologized. He did it without quite meeting my eyes, as a man does when he feels he has embarrassed himself dreadfully, maybe so deeply that he can never quite live it down. A man can end up hating the fellow who has seen him in such a state. I thought Warden Moores was better than that, but it never crossed my mind to do the business I had originally come for, and when I left Moores’s office, I walked over to E Block instead of back to my car. The aspirin was working by then, and the pain in my midsection was down to a low throb. I would get through the day somehow, I reckoned, get Wharton settled in, check back with Hal Moores that afternoon, and get my sick-leave for tomorrow. The worst was pretty much over, I thought, with no slightest idea that the worst of that day’s mischief hadn’t even begun.

Chapter 19

11

“We thought he was still doped from the tests,” Dean said late that afternoon. His voice was low, rasping, almost a bark, and there were blackish-purple bruises rising on his neck. I could see it was hurting him to talk and thought of telling him to let it go, but sometimes it hurts more to be quiet. I judged that this was one of those times, and kept my own mouth shut. “We all thought he was doped, didn’t we?”

Harry Terwilliger nodded. Even Percy, sitting off by himself in his own sullen little party of one, nodded.

Brutal glanced at me, and for a moment I met his eyes. We were thinking pretty much that same thing, that this was the way it happened. You were cruising along, everything going according to Hoyle, you made one mistake, and bang, the sky fell down on you. They had thought he was doped, it was a reasonable assumption to make, but no one had asked if he was doped. I thought I saw something else in Brutal’s eyes, as well: Harry and Dean would learn from their mistake. Especially Dean, who could easily have gone home to his family dead. Percy wouldn’t. Percy maybe couldn’t. All Percy could do was sit in the corner and sulk because he was in the shit again.

There were seven of them that went up to Indianola to take charge of Wild Bill Wharton: Harry, Dean, Percy, two other guards in the back (I have forgotten their names, although I’m sure I knew them once), plus two up front. They took what we used to call the stagecoach—a Ford panel-truck which had been steel-reinforced and equipped with supposedly bulletproof glass. It looked like a cross between a milk-wagon and an armored car.

Harry Terwilliger was technically in charge of the expedition. He handed his paperwork over to the county sheriff (not Homer Cribus but some other elected yokel like him, I imagine), who in turn handed over Mr. William Wharton, hellraiser extraordinaire, as Delacroix might have put it. A Cold Mountain prison uniform had been sent ahead, but the sheriff and his men hadn’t bothered to put Wharton in it; they left that to our boys. Wharton was dressed in a cotton hospital johnny and cheap felt slippers when they first met him on the second floor of the General Hospital, a scrawny man with a narrow, pimply face and a lot of long, tangly blond hair. His ass, also narrow and also covered with pimples, stuck out the back of the johnny. That was the part of him Harry and the others saw first, because Wharton was standing at the window and looking out at the parking lot when they came in. He didn’t turn but just stood there, holding the curtains back with one hand, silent as a doll while Harry bitched at the county sheriff about being too lazy to get Wharton into his prison blues and the county sheriff lectured—as every county official I’ve ever met seems bound to do—about what was his job and what was not.

When Harry got tired of that part (I doubt it took him long), he told Wharton to turn around. Wharton did. He looked, Dean told us in his raspy bark of a half-choked voice, like any one of a thousand backcountry stampeders who had wound their way through Cold Mountain during our years there. Boil that look down and what you got was a dullard with a mean steak. Sometimes you also discovered a yellow streak in them, once their backs were to the wall, but more often there was nothing there but fight and mean and then more fight and more mean. There are people who see nobility in folks like Billy Wharton, but I am not one of them. A rat will fight, too, if it is cornered. This man’s face seemed to have no more personality than his acne-studded backside, Dean told us. His jaw was slack, his eyes distant, his shoulders slumped, his hands dangling. He looked shot up with morphine, all right, every bit as coo-coo as any dopefiend any of them had ever seen.

At this, Percy gave another of his sullen nods.

“Put this on,” Harry said, indicating the uniform on the foot of the bed—it had been taken out of the brown paper it was wrapped in, but otherwise not touched-it was still folded just as it had been in the prison laundry, with a pair of white cotton boxer shorts poking out of one shirtsleeve and a pair of white socks poking out of the other.

Wharton seemed willing enough to comply, but wasn’t able to get very far without help. He managed the boxers, but when it came to the pants, he kept trying to put both legs into the same hole. Finally Dean helped him, getting his feet to go where they belonged and then yanking the trousers up, doing the fly, and snapping the waistband.. Wharton only stood there, not even trying to help once he saw that Dean was doing it for him. He stared vacantly across the room, hands lax, and it didn’t occur to any of them that he was shamming. Not in hopes of escape (at least I don’t believe that was it) but only in hopes of making the maximum amount of trouble when the right time came.

The papers were signed. William Wharton, who had become county property when he was arrested, now became the state’s property. He was taken down the back stairs and through the kitchen, surrounded by bluesuits. He walked with his head down and his long-fingered hands dangling. The first time his cap fell off, Dean put it back on him. The second time, he just tucked it into his own back pocket.

He had another chance to make trouble in the back of the stagecoach, when they were shackling him, and didn’t. If he thought (even now I’m not sure if he did, or if he did, how much), he must have thought that the space was too small and the numbers too great to cause a satisfactory hooraw. So on went the chains, one set running between his ankles and another set too long, it turned out, between his wrists.

The drive to Cold Mountain took an hour. During that whole time, Wharton sat on the lefthand bench up by the cab, head lowered, cuffed hands dangling between his knees. Every now and then he hummed a little, Harry said, and Percy roused himself enough from his funk to say that the lugoon dripped spittle from his lax lower lip, a drop at a time, until it had made a puddle between his feet. Like a dog dripping off the end of its tongue on a hot summer day.

They drove in through the south gate when they got to the pen, right past my car, I guess. The guard on the south pass tan back the big door between the lot and the exercise yard, and the stagecoach drove through. It was a slack time in the yard, not many men out and most of them hoeing in the garden. Pumpkin time, it would have been. They drove straight across to E Block and stopped. The driver opened the door and told them he was going to take the stagecoach over to the motor-pool to have the oil changed, it had been good working with them. The extra guards went with the vehicle, two of them sitting in the back eating apples, the doors now swinging open.

That left Dean, Harry and Percy with one shackled prisoner. It should have been enough, would have been enough, if they hadn’t been lulled by the stick thin country boy standing head-down there in the dirt with chains on his wrists and ankles. They marched him the twelve or so paces to the door that opened into E Block, falling into the same formation we used when escorting prisoners down the Green Mile. Harry was on his left, Dean was on his right, and Percy was behind, with his baton in his hand. No one told me that, but I know damned well he had it out; Percy loved that hickory stick. As for me, I was sitting in what would be Wharton’s home until it came time for him to check into the hot place-first cell on the right as you headed down the corridor toward the restraint room. I had my clipboard in my hands and was thinking of nothing but making my little set speech and getting the hell out. The pain in my groin was building up again, and all I wanted was to go into my office and wait for it to pass.

Dean stepped forward to unlock the door. He selected the right key from the bunch on his belt and slid it into the lock. Wharton came alive just as Dean turned the key and pulled the handle. He voiced a screaming, gibbering cry—a kind of Rebel yell—that froze Harry to temporary immobility and pretty much finished Percy Wetmore for the entire encounter. I heard that scream through the partly opened door and didn’t associate it with anything human at first; I thought a dog had gotten into the yard somehow and had been hurt; that perhaps some mean tempered con had hit it with a hoe.

Wharton lifted his arms, dropped the chain which hung between his wrists over Dean’s head, and commenced to choke him with it. Dean gave a strangled cry and lurched forward, into the cool electric light of our little world. Wharton was happy to go with him, even gave him a shove, all the time yelling and gibbering, even laughing. He had his arms cocked at the elbows with his fists up by Dean’s ears, yanking the chain as tight as he could, whipsawing it back and forth.

Harry landed on Wharton’s back, wrapping one hand in our new boy’s greasy blond hair and slamming his other fist into the side of Wharton’s face as hard as he could. He had both a baton of his own and a sidearm pistol, but in his excitement drew neither. We’d had trouble with prisoners before, you bet, but never one who’d taken any of us by surprise the way that Wharton did. The man’s slyness was beyond our experience. I had never seen its like before, and have never seen it again.

And he was strong. All that slack looseness was gone. Harry said later that it was like jumping onto a coiled nest of steel springs that had somehow come to life. Wharton, now inside and near the duty desk, whirled to his left and flung Harry off. Harry hit the desk and went sprawling.

“Whoooee, boys!” Wharton laughed. “Ain’t this a party, now? Is it, or what?”

Still screaming and laughing, Wharton went back to choking Dean with his chain. Why not? Wharton knew what we all knew: they could only fry him once.

“Hit him, Percy, hit him!” Harry screamed, struggling to his feet. But Percy only stood there, hickory baton in hand, eyes as wide as soup-plates. Here was the chance he’d been looking for, you would have said, his golden opportunity to put that tallywhacker of his to good use, and he was too scared and confused to do it. This wasn’t some terrified little Frenchman or a black giant who hardly seemed to be in his own body; this was a whirling devil.

I came out of Wharton’s cell, dropping my clipboard and pulling my .38. I had forgotten the infection that was heating up my middle for the second time that day. I didn’t doubt the story the others told of Wharton’s blank face and dull eyes when they told it, but that wasn’t the Wharton I saw. What I saw was the face of an animal—not an intelligent animal, but one filled with cunning …and meanness …and joy. Yes. He was doing what he had been made to do. The place and the circumstances didn’t matter. The other thing I saw was Dean Stanton’s red, swelling face. He was dying in front of my eyes. Wharton saw the gun and turned Dean toward it, so that I’d almost certainly have to hit one to hit the other. From over Dean’s shoulder, one blazing blue eye dared me to shoot.

Part IV

Coffey’s Hands

Chapter 20

1

Looking back through what I’ve written, I see that I called Georgia Pines, where I now live, a nursing home. The folks who run the place wouldn’t be very happy with that! According to the brochures they keep in the lobby and send out to prospective clients, its a “State-of-the-art retirement complex for the elderly.” It even has a Resource Center—the brochure says so. The folks who have to live here (the brochure doesn’t call us “inmates,” but sometimes I do) just call it the TV room.

Folks think I’m stand-offy because I don’t go down to the TV room much in the day, but it’s the programs I can’t stand, not the folks. Oprah, Ricki Lake, Carnie Wilson, Rolanda—the world is falling down around our ears, and all these people care for is talking about fucking to women in short skirts and men with their shirts hanging open. Well, hell—judge not, lest ye be judged, the Bible says, so I’ll get down off my soapbox. It’s just that if I wanted to spend time with trailer trash, I’d move two miles down to the Happy Wheels Motor Court, where the police cars always seem to be headed on Friday and Saturday nights with their sirens screaming and their blue lights flashing. My special friend, Elaine Connelly, feels the same way. Elaine is eighty, tall and slim, still erect and clear-eyed, very intelligent and refined. She walks very slowly because there’s something wrong with her hips, and I know that the arthritis in her hands gives her terrible misery, but she has a beautiful long neck—a swan neck, almost—and long, pretty hair that falls to her shoulders when she lets it down.

Best of all, she doesn’t think I’m peculiar, or stand-offy. We spend a lot of time together, Elaine and I. If I hadn’t reached such a grotesque age, I suppose I might speak of her as my ladyfriend. Still, having a special friend—just that—is not so bad, and in some ways, it’s even better. A lot of the problems and heartaches that go with being boyfriend and girlfriend have simply burned out of us. And although I know that no one under the age of, say, fifty would believe this, sometimes the embers are better than the campfire. It’s strange, but it’s true.

So I don’t watch TV during the day. Sometimes I walk; sometimes I read; mostly what I’ve been doing for the last month or so is writing this memoir among the plants in the solarium. I think there’s more oxygen in that room, and it helps the old memory. It beats the hell out of Geraldo Rivera, I can tell you that.

But when I can’t sleep, I sometimes creep downstairs and put on the television. There’s no Home Box Office or anything at Georgia Pines—I guess that’s a resource just a wee bit too expensive for our Resource Center—but we have the basic cable services, and that means we have the American Movie Channel. That’s the one (just in case you don’t have the basic cable services yourself) where most of the films are in black and white and none of the women take their clothes off. For an old fart like me, that’s sort of soothing. There have been a good many nights when I’ve slipped right off to sleep on the ugly green sofa in front of the TV while Francis the Talking Mule once more pulls Donald O’Connor’s skillet out of the fire, or John Wayne cleans up Dodge, or Jimmy Cagney calls someone a dirty rat and then pulls a gun. Some of them are movies I saw with my wife, Janice (not just my ladyfriend but my best friend), and they calm me. The clothes they wear, the way they walk and talk, even the music on the soundtrack—all those things calm me. They remind me, I suppose, of when I was a man still walking on the skin of the world, instead of a moth-eaten relic mouldering away in an old folks’ home where many of the residents wear diapers and rubber pants.

There was nothing soothing about what I saw this morning, though. Nothing at all.

Elaine sometimes joins me for AMC’s so-called Early Bird Matinee, which starts at 4:00 a.m.—she doesn’t say much about it, but I know her arthritis hurts her something terrible, and that the drugs they give her don’t help much anymore.

When she came in this morning, gliding like a ghost in her white terrycloth robe, she found me sitting on the lumpy sofa, bent over the scrawny sticks that used to be legs, and clutching my knees to try and still the shakes that were running through me like a high wind. I felt cold all over, except for my groin, which seemed to burn with the ghost of the urinary infection which had so troubled my life in the fall of 1932 the fall of John Coffey, Percy Wetmore, and Mr. Jingles, the trained mouse.

The fall of William Wharton, it had been, too.

“Paul!” Elaine cried, and hurried over to me hurried as fast as the rusty nails and ground glass in her hips would allow, anyway. “Paul, what’s wrong?”

“I’ll be all right,” I said, but the words didn’t sound very convincing—they came out all uneven, through teeth that wanted to chatter. “Just give me a minute or two, I’ll be right as rain.”

She sat next to me and put her arm around my shoulders. “I’m sure,” she said. “But what happened? For heaven’s sake, Paul, you look like you saw a ghost.”

I did, I thought, and didn’t realize until her eyes widened that I’d said it out loud.

“Not really.” I said, and patted her hand (gently—so gently!). “But for a minute. Elaine God!”

“Was it from the time when you were a guard at the prison?” she asked. “The time that you’ve been writing about in the solarium?”

I nodded. “I worked on our version of Death Row—“

“I know—“

“Only we called it the Green Mile. Because of the linoleum on the floor. In the fall of ’32, we got this fellow—we got this wildman—named William Wharton. Liked to think of himself as Billy the Kid, even had it tattooed on his arm. Just a kid, but dangerous. I can still remember what Curtis Anderson—he was the assistant warden back in those days—wrote about him. ’Crazy-wild and proud of it. Wharton is nineteen years old, and he just doesn’t care.’ He’d underlined that part.”

The hand which had gone around my shoulders was now rubbing my back. I was beginning to calm. In that moment I loved Elaine Connelly, and could have kissed her all over her face as I told her so. Maybe I should have. It’s terrible to be alone and frightened at any age, but I think it’s worst when you’re old. But I had this other thing on my mind, this load of old and still unfinished business.

“Anyway,” I said, “you’re right-I’ve been scribbling about how Wharton came on the block and almost killed Dean Stanton—One of the guys I worked with back then—when he did.”

“How could he do that?” Elaine asked.

“Meanness and carelessness,” I said grimly. “Wharton supplied the meanness, and the guards who brought him in supplied the carelessness. The real mistake was Wharton’s wrist-chain—it was a little too long. When Dean unlocked the door to E Block, Wharton was behind him. There were guards on either side of him, but Anderson was right—Wild Billy just didn’t care about such things. He dropped that wrist-chain down over Dean’s head and started choking him with it.”

Elaine shuddered.

“Anyway, I got thinking about all that and couldn’t sleep, so I came down here. I turned on AMC, thinking you might come down and we’d have us a little date—”

She laughed and kissed my forehead just above the eyebrow. It used to make me prickle all over when Janice did that, and it still made me prickle all over when Elaine did it early this morning. I guess some things don’t ever change.

“—and what came on was this old black-and-white gangster movie from the forties. Kiss of Death, it’s called.”

I could feel myself wanting to start shaking again and tried to suppress it.

“Richard Widmark’s in it,” I said. “It was his first big part, I think. I never went to see it with Jan—we gave the cops and robbers a miss, usually—but I remember reading somewhere that Widmark gave one hell of a performance as the punk. He sure did. He’s pale …doesn’t seem to walk so much as go gliding around …he’s always calling people ’squirt’ …talking about squealers how much he hates the squealers…!”

I was starting to shiver again in spite of my best efforts. I just couldn’t help it.

“Blond hair,” I whispered. “Lank blond hair. I watched until the part where he pushed this old woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs, then I turned it off.”

“He reminded you of Wharton?”

“He was Wharton,” I said. “To the life!”

“Paul—!’ she began, and stopped. She looked at the blank screen of the TV (the cable box on top of it was still on, the red numerals still showing 10, the number of the AMC channel), then back at me.

“What?” I asked. ’What, Elaine?” Thinking, She’s going to tell, me I ought to quit writing about it. That I ought to tear up the pages I’ve written so far and just quit on it.

What she said was “Don’t let this stop you!”

I gawped at her.

“Close your mouth, Paul—you’ll catch a fly.”

“Sorry. It’s just that …well …”

“You thought I was going to tell you just the opposite, didn’t you?”

“Yes. “

She took my hands in hers (gently, so gently—her long and beautiful fingers, her bunched and ugly knuckles) and leaned forward, fixing my blue eyes with her hazel ones, the left slightly dimmed by the mist of a coalescing cataract. “I may be too old and brittle to live,” she said, “but I’m not too old to think. What’s a few sleepless nights at our age? What’s seeing a ghost on the TV, for that matter? Are you going to tell me it’s the only one you’ve ever seen?”

I thought about Warden Moores, and Harry Terwilliger, and Brutus Howell; I thought about MY mother, and about Jan, my wife, who died in Alabama. I knew about ghosts, all right.

“No,” I said. “It wasn’t the first ghost I’ve ever seen. But Elaine—it was a shock. Because it was him.”

She kissed me again, then stood up, wincing as she did so and pressing the heels of her hands to the tops of her hips, as if she were afraid they might actually explode out through her skin if she wasn’t very careful.

“I think I’ve changed my mind about the television,” she said. “I’ve got an extra pill that I’ve been keeping for a rainy day …or night. I think I’ll take it and go back to bed. Maybe you should do the same.”

“Yes,” I said. “I suppose I should!” For one wild moment I thought of suggesting that we go back to bed together, and then I saw the dull pain in her eyes and thought better of it. Because she might have said yes, and she would only have said that for me. Not so good.

We left the TV room (I won’t dignify it with that other name, not even to be ironic) side by side, me matching my steps to hers, which were slow and painfully careful. The building was quiet except for someone moaning in the grip of a bad dream behind some closed door.

“Will you be able to sleep, do you think?” she asked.

“Yes, I think so,” I said, but of course I wasn’t able to; I lay in my bed until sunup, thinking about Kiss of Death. I’d see Richard Widmark, giggling madly, tying the old lady into her wheelchair and then pushing her down the stairs—"This is what we do to squealers,” he told her—and then his face would merge into the face of William Wharton as he’d looked on the day when he came to E Block and the Green Mile Wharton giggling like Widmark, Wharton screaming, Ain’t this a pa", now? Is it, or what? I didn’t bother with breakfast, not after that; I just came down here to the solarium and began to write.

Ghosts? Sure.

I know all about ghosts.

Chapter 21

2

“Woooee, boys!” Wharton laughed. “Ain’t this a party, now? Is it, or what?”

Still screaming and laughing, Wharton went back to choking Dean with his chain. Why not? Wharton knew what Dean and Harry and my friend Brutus Howell knew—they could only fry a man once.

“Hit him!” Harry Terwilliger screamed. He had grappled with Wharton, tried to stop things before they got fairly started, but Wharton had thrown him off and now Harry was trying to find his feet. “Percy, hit him!”

But Percy only stood there, hickory baton in hand, eyes as wide as soup-plates. He loved that damned baton of his, and you would have said this was the chance to use it he’d been pining for ever since he came to Cold Mountain Penitentiary …but now that it had come, he was too scared to use the opportunity. This wasn’t some terrified little Frenchman like Delacroix or a black giant who hardly seemed to know he was in his own body, like John Coffey; this was a whirling devil.

I came out of Wharton’s cell, dropping my clipboard and pulling my .38. For the second time that day I had forgotten the infection that was heating up my middle. I didn’t doubt the story the others told of Wharton’s blank face and dull eyes when they recounted it later, but that wasn’t the Wharton I saw. What I saw was the face of an animal—not an intelligent animal, but one filled with cunning …and meanness …and joy. Yes. He was doing what he had been made to do. The place and the circumstances didn’t matter. The other thing I saw was Dean Stanton’s red, swelling face. He was dying in front of my eyes. Wharton saw the gun in my hand and turned Dean toward it, so that I’d almost certainly have to hit one to hit the other. From over Dean’s shoulder, one blazing blue eye dared me to shoot. Wharton’s other eye was hidden by Dean’s hair. Behind them I saw Percy standing irresolute, with his baton half-raised. And then, filling the open doorway to the prison yard, a miracle in the flesh: Brutus Howell. They had finished moving the last of the infirmary equipment, and he had come over to see who wanted coffee.

He acted without a moment’s hesitation—shoved Percy aside and into the wall with tooth-rattling force, pulled his own baton out of its loop, and brought it crashing down on the back of Wharton’s head with all the force in his massive right arm. There was a dull whock! Sound—an almost hollow sound, as if there were no brain at all under Wharton’s skull—and the chain finally loosened around Dean’s neck. Wharton went down like a sack of meal and Dean crawled away, hacking harshly and holding one hand to his throat, his eyes bulging.

I knelt by him and he shook his head violently. “Okay,” he rasped. “Take care …him!” He motioned at Wharton. “Lock! Cell!”

I didn’t think he’d need a cell, as hard as Brutal had hit him; I thought he’d need a coffin. No such luck, though. Wharton was conked out, but a long way from dead. He lay sprawled on his side, one arm thrown out so that the tips of his fingers touched the linoleum of the Green Mile, his eyes shut, his breathing slow but regular. There was even a peaceful little smile on his face, as if he’d gone to sleep listening to his favorite lullaby. A tiny red rill of blood was seeping out of his hair and staining the collar of his new prison shirt. That was all.

“Percy,” I said. “Help me!”

Percy didn’t move, only stood against the wall, staring with wide, stunned eyes. I don’t think he knew exactly where he was.

“Percy, goddammit, grab hold of him!”

He got moving, then, and Harry helped him. Together the three of us hauled the unconscious Mr. Wharton into his cell while Brutal helped Dean to his feet and held him as gently as any mother while Dean bent over and hacked air back into his lungs.

Our new problem child didn’t wake up for almost three hours, but when he did, he showed absolutely no ill effects from Brutal’s savage hit. He came to the way he moved—fast. At one moment he was lying on his bunk, dead to the world. At the next he was standing at the bars—he was silent as a cat—and staring out at me as I sat at the duty desk, writing a report on the incident. When I finally sensed someone looking at me and glanced up, there he was, his grin displaying a set of blackening, dying teeth with several gaps among them already. It gave me a jump to see him there like that. I tried not to show it, but I think he knew. “Hey, flunky,” he said. “Next time it’ll be you. And I won’t miss.”

“Hello, Wharton,” I said, as evenly as I could. “Under the circumstances, I guess I can skip the speech and the Welcome Wagon, don’t you think?”

His grin faltered just a little. It wasn’t the sort of response he had expected, and probably wasn’t the one I would have given under other circumstances. But something had happened while Wharton was unconscious. It is, I suppose, one of the major things I have trudged through all these pages to tell you about. Now let’s just see if you believe it.

Chapter 22

3

Except for shouting once at Delacroix, Percy kept his mouth shut once the excitement was over. This was probably the result of shock rather than any effort at tact—Percy Wetmore knew as much about tact as I do about the native tribes of darkest Africa, in my opinion—but it was a damned good thing, just the same. If he’d started in whining about how Brutal had pushed him into the wall or wondering why no one had told him that nasty men like Wild Billy Wharton sometimes turned up on E Block, I think we would have killed him. Then we could have toured the Green Mile in a whole new way. That’s sort of a funny idea, when you consider it. I missed my chance to make like James Cagney in White Heat.

Anyway, when we were sure that Dean was going to keep breathing and that he wasn’t going to pass out on the spot, Harry and Brutal escorted him over to the infirmary. Delacroix, who had been absolutely silent during the scuffle (he had been in prison lots of times, that one, and knew when it was prudent to keep his yap shut and when it was relatively safe to open it again), began bawling loudly down the corridor as Harry and Brutal helped Dean out. Delacroix wanted to know what had happened. You would have thought his constitutional rights had been violated.

“Shut up, you little queer!” Percy yelled back, so furious that the veins stood out on the sides of his neck. I put a hand on his arm and felt it quivering beneath his shirt. Some of this was residual fright, of course (every now and then I had to remind myself that part of Percy’s problem was that he was only twenty-one, not much older than Wharton), but I think most of it was rage. He hated Delacroix. I don’t know just why, but he did.

“Go see if Warden Moores is still here,” I told Percy. “If he is, give him a complete verbal report on what happened. Tell him he’ll have my written report on his desk tomorrow, if I can manage it.”

Percy swelled visibly at this responsibility; for a horrible moment or two, I actually thought he might salute. “Yes, sir. I will.”

“Begin by telling him that the situation in E Block is normal. It’s not a story, and the warden won’t appreciate you dragging it out to heighten the suspense.”

“I won’t.”

“Okay. Off you go.”

He started for the door, then turned back. The one thing you could count on with him was contrariness. I desperately wanted him gone, my groin was on fire, and now he didn’t seem to want to go.

“Are you all right, Paul?” he asked. “Running a fever, maybe? Got a touch of the grippe? Cause there’s sweat all over your face.”

“I might have a touch of something, but mostly I’m fine,” I said. “Go on, Percy, tell the warden.”

He nodded and left—thank Christ for small favors. As soon as the door was closed, I lunged into my office. Leaving the duty desk unmanned was against regulations, but I was beyond caring about that. It was bad—like it had been that morning.

I managed to get into the little toilet cubicle behind the desk and to get my business out of my pants before the urine started to gush, but it was a near thing. I had to put a hand over my mouth to stifle a scream as I began to flow, and grabbed blindly for the lip of the washstand with the other. It wasn’t like my house, where I could fall to my knees and piss a puddle beside the woodpile; if I went to my knees here, the urine would go all over the floor.

I managed to keep my feet and not to scream, but it was a close thing on both counts. It felt like my urine had been filled with tiny slivers of broken glass. The smell coming up from the toilet bowl was swampy and unpleasant, and I could see white stuff—pus, I guess—floating on the surface of the water.

I took the towel off the rack and wiped my face with it. I was sweating, all right; it was pouring off me. I looked into the metal mirror and saw the flushed face of a man running a high fever looking back at me. Hundred and three? Hundred and four?

Better not to know, maybe. I put the towel back on its bar, flushed the toilet, and walked slowly back across my office to the cellblock door. I was afraid Bill Dodge or someone else might have come in and seen three prisoners with no attendants, but the place was empty. Wharton still lay unconscious on his bunk, Delacroix had fallen silent, and John Coffey had never made a single noise at all, I suddenly realized. Not a peep. Which was worrisome.

I went down the Mile and glanced into Coffey’s cell, half-expecting to discover he’d committed suicide in one of the two common Death Row ways either hanging himself with his pants, or gnawing into his wrists. No such thing, it turned out. Coffey merely sat on the end of his bunk with his hands in his lap, the largest man I’d ever seen in my life, looking at me with his strange, wet eyes.

“Cap’n?” he said.

“What’s up, big boy?”

“I need to see you.”

“Ain’t you looking right at me, John Coffey?”

He said nothing to this, only went on studying me with his strange, leaky gaze. I sighed.

“In a second, big boy.”

I looked over at Delacroix, who was standing at the bars of his cell. Mr. Jingles, his pet mouse (Delacroix would tell you he’d trained Mr. Jingles to do tricks, but us folks who worked on the Green Mile were pretty much unanimous in the opinion that Mr. Jingles had trained himself), was jumping restlessly back and forth from one of Del’s outstretched hands to the other, like an acrobat doing leaps from platforms high above the center ring. His eyes were huge, his ears laid back against his sleek brown skull. I hadn’t any doubt that the mouse was reacting to Delacroix’s nerves. As I watched, he ran down Delacroix’s pants leg and across the cell to where the brightly colored spool lay against one wall. He pushed the spool back to Delacroix’s foot and then looked up at him eagerly, but the little Cajun took no notice of his friend, at least for the time being.

“What happen, boss?” Delacroix asked. “Who been hurt?”

“Everything’s jake,” I said. “Our new boy came in like a lion, but now he’s passed out like a lamb. All’s well that ends well.”

“It ain’t over yet,” Delacroix said, looking up the Mile toward the cell where Wharton was jugged. “L’homme mauvais, c’est”

“Well,” I said, “don’t let it get you down, Del. Nobody’s going to make you play skiprope with him out in the yard.”

There was a creaking sound from behind me as Coffey got off his bunk. “Boss Edgecombe!” he said again. This time he sounded urgent. “I need to talk to you!”

I turned to him, thinking, all right, no problem, talking was my business. All the time trying not to shiver, because the fever had turned cold, as they sometimes will. Except for my groin, which still felt as if it had been slit open, filled with hot coals, and then sewed back up again.

“So talk, John Coffey,” I said, trying to keep my voice light and calm. For the first time since he’d come onto E Block, Coffey looked as though he was really here, really among us. The almost ceaseless trickle of tears from the corners of his eyes had ceased, at least for the time being, and I knew he was seeing what he was looking at—Mr. Paul Edgecombe, E Block’s bull-goose screw, and not some place he wished he could return to, and take back the terrible thing he’d done.

“No,” he said. “You got to come in here.”

“Now, you know I can’t do that,” I said, still trying for the light tone, “at least not right this minute. I’m on my own here for the time being, and you outweigh me by just about a ton and a half. We’ve had us one hooraw this afternoon, and that’s enough. So we’ll just have us a chat through the bars, if it’s all the same to you, and—“

“Please!” He was holding the bars so tightly that his knuckles were pale and his fingernails were white. His face was long with distress, those strange eyes sharp with some need I could not understand. I remember thinking that maybe I could’ve understood it if I hadn’t been so sick, and knowing that would have given me a way of helping him through the rest of it. When you know what a man needs, you know the man, more often than not. “Please, Boss Edgecombe! You have to come in!”

That’s the nuttiest thing I ever heard, I thought, and then realized something even nuttier: I was going to do it. I had my keys off my belt and I was hunting through them for the ones that opened John Coffey’s cell. He could have picked me up and broken me over his knee like kindling on a day when I was well and feeling fine, and this wasn’t that day. All the same, I was going to do it. On my own, and less than half an hour after a graphic demonstration of where stupidity and laxness could get you when you were dealing with condemned murderers, I was going to open this black giant’s cell, go in, and sit with him. If I was discovered, I might well lose my job even if he didn’t do anything crazy, but I was going to do it, just the same.

Stop, I said to myself, you just stop now, Paul. But I didn’t. I used one key on the top lock, another on the bottom lock, and then I slid the door back on its track.

“You know, boss, that maybe not such a good idear,” Delacroix said in a voice so nervous and prissy it would probably have made me laugh under other circumstances.

“You mind your business and I’ll mind mine,” I said without looking around. My eyes were fixed on John Coffey’s, and fixed so hard they might have been nailed there. It was like being hypnotized. My voice sounded to my own ears like something which had come echoing down a long valley. Hell, maybe I was hypnotized. “You just lie down and take you a rest.”

“Christ, this place is crazy,” Delacroix said in a trembling voice. “Mr. Jingles, I just about wish they’d fry me and be done widdit!”

I went into Coffey’s cell. He stepped away as I stepped forward. When he was backed up against his bunk—it hit him in the calves, that’s how tall he was—he sat down on it. He patted the mattress beside him, his eyes never once leaving mine. I sat down there next to him, and he put his arm around my shoulders, as if we were at the movies and I was his girl.

“What do you want, John Coffey?” I asked, still looking into his eyes—those sad, serene eyes.

“Just to help,” he said. He sighed like a man will when he’s faced with a job he doesn’t much want to do, and then he put his hand down in my crotch, on that shelf of bone a foot or so below the navel.

“Hey!” I cried. “Get your goddam hand—”

A jolt slammed through me then, a big painless whack of something. It made me jerk on the cot and bow my back, made me think of Old Toot shouting that he was frying, he was frying, he was a done tom turkey. There was no heat, no feeling of electricity, but for a moment the color seemed to jump out of everything, as if the world had been somehow squeezed and made to sweat. I could see every pore on john Coffey’s face, I could see every bloodshot snap in his haunted eyes, I could see a tiny healing scrape on his chin. I was aware that my fingers were hooked down into claws on thin air, and that my feet were drumming on the floor of Coffey’s cell.

Then it was over. So was my urinary infection. Both the heat and the miserable throbbing pain were gone from my crotch, and the fever was likewise gone from my head. I could still feel the sweat it had drawn out of my skin, and I could smell it, but it was gone, all right.

“What’s going on?” Delacroix called shrilly. His voice still came from far away, but when John Coffey bent forward, breaking eye-contact with me, the little Cajun’s voice suddenly came clear. It was as if someone had pulled wads of cotton or a pair of shooters’ plugs out of my ears. “What’s he doing to you?”

I didn’t answer. Coffey was bent forward over his own lap with his face working and his throat bulging. His eyes were bulging, too. He looked like a man with a chicken bone caught in his throat.

“John!” I said. I clapped him on the back; it was all I could think of to do. “John, what’s wrong?”

He hitched under my hand, then made an unpleasant gagging, retching sound. His mouth opened the way horses sometimes open their mouths to allow the bit—reluctantly, with the lips peeling back from the teeth in a kind of desperate sneer. Then his teeth parted, too, and he exhaled a cloud of tiny black insects that looked like gnats or noseeums. They swirled furiously between his knees, turned white, and disappeared.

Suddenly all the strength went out of my middsection. It was as if the muscles there had turned to water. I slumped back against the stone side of Coffey’s cell. I remember thinking the name of the Savior Christ, Christ, Christ, over and over, like that—and I remember thinking that the fever had driven me delirious. That was all.

Then I became aware that Delacroix was bawling for help; he was telling the world that John Coffey was killing me, and telling it at the top of his lungs. Coffey was bending over me, all right, but only to make sure I was okay.

“Shut up, Del,” I said, and got on my feet. I waited for the pain to rip into my guts, but it didn’t happen. I was better. Really. There was a moment of dizziness, but that passed even before I was able to reach out and grab the bars of Coffey’s cell door for balance. “I’m totally okey-doke.”

“You get on outta here,” Delacroix said, sounding like a nervy old woman telling a kid to climb down out of that-ere apple tree. “You ain’t suppose to be in there wit no one else on the block.”

I looked at John Coffey, who sat on the bunk with his huge hands on the tree stumps of his knees. John Coffey looked back at me. He had to tilt his head up a little, but not much.

“What did you do, big boy?” I asked in a low voice. “What did you do to me?”

“Helped,” he said. “I helped it, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, I guess, but how? How did you help it?”

He shook his head—right, left, back to dead center. He didn’t know how he’d helped it (how he’d cured it) and his placid face suggested that he didn’t give a rat’s ass—any more than I’d give a rat’s ass about the mechanics of running when I was leading in the last fifty yards of a Fourth of July Two-Miler. I thought about asking him how he’d known I was sick in the first place, except that would undoubtedly have gotten the same headshake. There’s a phrase I read somewhere and never forgot, something about “an enigma wrapped in a mystery.” That’s what John Coffey was, and I suppose the only reason he could sleep at night was because he didn’t care. Percy called him the ijit, which was cruel but not too far off the mark. Our big boy knew his name, and knew it wasn’t spelled like the drink, and that was just about all he cared to know.

As if to emphasize this for me, he shook his head in that deliberate way one more time, then lay down on his bunk with his hands clasped under his left cheek like a pillow and his face to the wall. His legs dangled off the end of the bunk from the shins on down, but that never seemed to bother him. The back of his shirt had pulled up, and I could see the scars that crisscrossed his skin.

I left the cell, turned the locks, then faced Delacroix, who was standing across the way with his hands wrapped around the bars of his cell, looking at me anxiously. Perhaps even fearfully. Mr. Jingles perched on his shoulder with his fine whiskers quivering like filaments. “What dat darkie-man do to you?” Delacroix asked. “Waddit gris-gris? He th’ow some gris-gris on you?” Spoken in that Cajun accent of his, gris-gris rhymed with pee-pee.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Del.”

“Devil you don’t! Lookit you! All change! Even walk different, boss!”

I probably was walking different, at that. There was a beautiful feeling of calm in my groin, a sense of peace so remarkable it was almost eestasy—anyone who’s suffered bad pain and then recovered will know what I’m talking about.

“Everything’s all right, Del,” I insisted. “John Coffey had a nightmare, that’s all.”

“He a gris-gris man!” Delacroix said vehemently. There was a nestle of sweat-beads on his upper lip. He hadn’t seen much, just enough to scare him half to death. “He a hoodoo man!”

“What makes you say that?”

Delacroix reached up and took the mouse in one hand. He cupped it in his palm and lifted it to his face. From his pocket, Delacroix took out a pink fragment—one of those peppermint candies. He held it out, but at first the mouse ignored it, stretching out its neck toward the man instead, sniffing at his breath the way a person might sniff at a bouquet of flowers. Its little oildrop eyes slitted most of the way closed in

an expression that looked like ecstasy. Delacroix kissed its nose, and the mouse allowed its nose to be kissed. Then it took the offered piece of candy and began to munch it. Delacroix looked at it a moment longer, then looked at me. All at once I got it.

“The mouse told you,” I said. “Am I right?”

“Oui.”

“Like he whispered his name to you.”

“Oui, in my ear he whisper it.”

“Lie down, Del,” I said. “Have you a little rest. All that whispering back and forth must wear you out.”

He said something else—accused me of not believing him, I suppose. His voice seemed to be coming from a long way off again. And when I went back up to the duty desk, I hardly seemed to be walking at all—it was more like I was floating, or maybe not even moving, the cells just rolling past me on either side, movie props on hidden wheels.

I started to sit like normal, but halfway into it my knees unlocked and I dropped onto the blue cushion Harry had brought from home the year before and plopped onto the seat of the chair. If the chair hadn’t been there, I reckon I would have plopped straight to the floor without passing Go or collecting two hundred dollars.

I sat there, feeling the nothing in my groin where a forest fire had been blazing not ten minutes before. I helped it, didn’t I? John Coffey had said, and that was true, as far as my body went. My peace of mind was a different story, though. That he hadn’t helped at all.

My eyes fell on the stack of forms under the tin ashtray we kept on the corner of the desk. BLOCK REPORT was printed at the top, and about halfway down was a blank space headed Report All Unusual Occurrences. I would use that space in tonight’s report, telling the story of William Wharton’s colorful and action-packed arrival. But suppose I also told what had happened to me in John Coffey’s cell? I saw myself picking up the pencil—the one whose tip Brutal was always licking—and writing a single word in big capital letters: MIRACLE.

That should have been funny, but instead of smiling, all at once I felt sure that I was going to cry I put my hands to my face, palms against my mouth to stifle the sobs—I didn’t want to scare Del again just when he was starting to get settled down—but no sobs came. No tears, either. After a few moments I lowered my hands back to the desk and folded them. I didn’t know what I was feeling, and the only clear thought in my head was a wish that no one should come back onto the block until I was a little more in control of myself. I was afraid of what they might see in my face.

I drew a Block Report form toward me. I would wait until I had settled down a bit more to write about how my latest problem child had almost strangled Dean Stanton, but I could fill out the rest of the boilerplate foolishness in the meantime. I thought my handwriting might look funny—trembly—but it came out about the same as always.

About five minutes after I started, I put the pencil down and went into the W.C. adjacent to my office to take a leak. I didn’t need to go very bad, but I could manage enough to test what had happened to me, I thought. As I stood there, waiting for my water to flow, I became sure that it would hurt just the way it had that morning, as if I were passing tiny shards of broken glass; what he’d done to me would turn out to be only hypnosis, after all, and that might be a relief in spite of the pain.

Except there was no pain, and what went into the bowl was clear, with no sign of pus. I buttoned my fly, pulled the chain that flushed the commode, went back to the duty desk, and sat down again.

I knew what had happened; I suppose I knew even when I was trying to tell myself I’d been hypnotized. I’d experienced a healing, an authentic Praise Jesus, The Lord Is Mighty. As a boy who’d grown up going to whatever Baptist or Pentecostal church my mother and her sisters happened to be in favor of during any given month, I had heard plenty of Praise Jesus, The Lord Is Mighty miracle stories. I didn’t believe all of them, but there were plenty of people I did believe. One of these was a man named Roy Delfines, who lived with his family about two miles down the road from us when I was six or so. Delfines had chopped his son’s little finger off with a hatchet, an accident which had occurred when the boy unexpectedly moved his hand on a log he’d been holding on the backyard chopping block for his dad. Roy Delfines said he had practically worn out the carpet with his knees that fall and winter, and in the spring the boy’s finger had grown back. Even the nail had grown back. I believed Roy Delfines when he testified at Thursday-night rejoicing. There was a naked, uncomplicated honesty in what he said as he stood there talking with his hands jammed deep into the pockets of his biballs that was impossible not to believe. “It itch him some when thet finger started coming, kep him awake nights,” Roy Delfines said, “but he knowed it was the Lord’s itch and let it be.” Praise Jesus, The Lord Is Mighty.

Roy Delfines’s story was only one of many; I grew up in a tradition of miracles and healings. I grew up believing in gris-gris, as well (only, up in the hills we said it to rhyme with kiss-kiss): stump-water for warts, moss under your pillow to ease the heartache of lost love, and, of course, what we used to call haints—but I did not believe John Coffey was a gris-gris man. I had looked into his eyes. More important,’ I had felt his touch. Being touched by him was like being touched by some strange and wonderful doctor.

I helped it, didn’t I?

That kept chiming in my head, like a snatch of song you can’t get rid of, or words you’d speak to set a spell.

I helped it, didn’t I?

Except he hadn’t. God had. John Coffey’s use of “I” could be chalked up to ignorance rather than pride, but I knew—believed, at least—what I had learned about healing in those churches of Praise Jesus, The Lord Is Mighty, piney-woods amen corners much beloved by my twenty-two-year-old mother and my aunts: that healing is never about the healed or the healer, but about God’s will. For one to rejoice at the sick made well is normal, quite the expected thing, but the person healed has an obligation to then ask why—to meditate on God’s will, and the extraordinary lengths to which God has gone to realize His will.

What did God want of me, in this case? What did He want badly enough to put healing power in the hands of a child-murderer? To be on the block, instead of at home, sick as a dog, shivering in bed with the stink of sulfa running out of my pores? Perhaps; I was maybe supposed to be here instead of home in case Wild Bill Wharton decided to kick up more dickens, or to make sure Percy Wetmore didn’t get up to some foolish and potentially destructive piece of fuckery All right, then. So be it. I would keep my eyes open—and my mouth shut, especially about miracle cures.

No one was apt to question my looking and sounding better; I’d been telling the world I was getting better, and until that very day I’d honestly believed it. I had even told Warden Moores that I was on the mend. Delacroix had seen something, but I thought he would keep his mouth shut, too (probably afraid John Coffey would throw a spell on him if he didn’t). As for Coffey himself, he’d probably already forgotten it. He was nothing but a conduit, after all, and there isn’t a culvert in the world that remembers the water that flowed through it once the rain has stopped. So I resolved to keep my mouth completely shut on the subject, with never an idea of how soon I’d be telling the story, or who I’d be telling it to.

But I was curious about my big boy, and there’s no sense not admitting it. After what had happened to me there in his cell, I was more curious than e