“Step up, heels to the line.”
The smartly uniformed guard ordered through a broad mustache that vibrated in sync with his speech like baleen. His soft kind eyes made it hard for Billy to do anything but oblige him. Billy stood in front of the lectern and waited for his next instruction. In the quiet, he remembered that he had been here, in this place, long enough to forget a different reality. His canvas shoes lifted a fleck of paint from the yellow line drawn across the polished concrete as he did his best to appear compliant.
From behind the guard, Sergeant pushed open the double doors with the weight of his rank. A great blast of air sent the little yellow paint chip skittering across the floor. Sergeant glanced at Billy, and then dropped the weight of his thick hands onto the guard’s shoulders. His mustache quivered as he recoiled from the unexpected blow.
Billy reflexively winced at the sound, and both uniformed men raised their eyes to him in unison, appraising the nature of his breach. He shuffled inside his loose fitting elastic strapped shoes as the older convicts had taught him. Sensing the release of tension from the prisoner, Sergeant once again focused his attention to the guard. After muttering a few words, he left through the double doors behind him, deliberately avoiding Billy’s eyes.
“Sergeant has informed me that your height and general physique has been spuriously recorded and that a correction must be made to the record.”
The guard leaned closed to Billy and eyed him from top to bottom, as if he were trying to estimate his height.
“Turn sideways.” He ordered sharply, causing Billy to pivot ninety degrees. “Hmm,” he considered the prisoner carefully. “I see the nature of Sergeant’s dilemma.” He chuckled a bit before bringing himself back into line, considering the gravity of the task.
Billy turned back to face the guard. “I've just been to the nurse this afternoon.”
“Yes, that’s all right, but you see we've gotten into a bit of a scrape with the accounting department and well…”
“I don’t see what that has to do with me, considering I’m to be hanged today.” Billy replied.
“And hanged you will be!” the guard answered enthusiastically.
The guard turned his attention to the ledger in front of him and made a few hesitant marks with his pencil. He glanced up at the prisoner and back to the ledger. Billy shuffled again inside his shoes.
“I suppose there’s no harm in telling you now.” The guard smiled broadly behind his rows of bristling whiskers. “We take your height and divide it by a figure, give or take a little for your vigor.”
Billy looked up at the guard quizzically. “I’m just here for the hanging, sir.” He did his best to look small.
“Of course you are. I’m sorry to bother you with all this clerical business; I should have known it’d be of no interest to you.” The guard closed the ledger and smiled.
Billy shuffled again and another fleck of paint skittered across the floor like a tiny haphazard point of sunlight cast through pinhole in the ceiling then cut off by a passing bird.
Sergeant burst through the door again with a great flourish. He opened the ledger and glanced at the last entry. “He’s still too short.”
Billy cleared his throat, “Excuse me sirs? Might I inquire as to the nature of your difficulty?”
Sergeant and the guard glanced at each other, and a brief discussion ensued in hushed voices. The only sound Billy could hear was the bristling of the guard’s mustache. Sergeant looked up and nodded to the guard who folded his hands in front of him before speaking.
“You see, we’re a long drop state, which means that instead of just pulling you up by your pretty little neck, then having a smoke while you dangle and strangle, we make every effort to see your suffering reduced by attempting to snap your neck with the correct fall, calculated by your height—which I’m afraid is wrong.”
“How do you mean it’s wrong?”
“For the calculation, don’t you see?” Sergeant interjected.
“I’m sorry sir, how could I be the wrong height for your calculation?” Billy asked pleadingly.
“What the guard means, is that we need to correct your height in the ledger, so our calculations are correct.” Sergeant restated the point.
A wave of understanding washed over Billy as he suddenly understood the predicament. Episodes from his life twinkled in his head, and he began to laugh, starting first as a chuckle, and then building into great heaves of laughter that shook his bones and echoed off the concrete block walls.
“You only have one rope. You bastards only have one rope.” Billy spat through peals of laughter.