The Butterfly, a True Story
The Yellowjacket, a Fiction
Whatever the season, the day of an execution casts a pall on everything. The prison fortress looms even more oppressive than usual (more so because it has been scrubbed clean for the media visitors who will attend the night’s poisoning). The dark, cold waters that surround Point San Quentin on which the ancient buildings sprawl, are alive with small boats whose colorful sails billow in the wind, while white ferry boats with red and blue trim carry loving families (oblivious to the preparations going on behind the crumbling red brick walls) to and from the picture-perfect post card that is San Francisco, which seems almost within reach across the Bay.
I had arrived early for the day-long wake, presided over by the nearly dearly departed, who would cease to exist at one minute past midnight, a ritual that occurs in the hours before every legal killing the state carries out. Others came and went throughout the day: the black-clad sob sisters who had to be escorted out; the lawyer-in-name-only who spent less than twenty minutes, before she embraced her client for the last time, never taking off her expensive black leather jacket; the prison psychologist who cleared the room while he conducted his final interview to determine whether Jaturun, the death row monk, was sane enough to be killed; the collection of Buddhist friends he had acquired through the years; even prison staff who had come to rely on his tranquil personality to calm the passions in that world apart (passions that ran as deep as the dark Bay waters on the other side of the walls).
One of many cards Jay painted for me
I had known Jay for years, had worked on his legal team to undo his death sentence, had spent weeks in the sweaty, filthy streets of Bangkok where he had grown up, had interviewed his weeping brothers and sister, abandoned by their mother as children, had poured over documents in the National Library until finding the Amnesty Proclamation absolving Jay of guilt for the teenage burglary that had been the necessary predicate to seek death in the murder case that was yet to happen, had secured a statement from the King himself urging clemency, had even persuaded the just-retired warden of San Quentin (a man who, seven years earlier, had personally pulled the lever, plunging the cyanide pellets into the vat of acid under the chair that Robert Harris was strapped into, releasing the gas that would choke him to death), yes, even he joined in the chorus to spare Jay’s life.
Now, just minutes before 6:00 p.m., when all visitors would be escorted out of the building and down the long walkway bordered by well-tended flowering shrubs to the parking lot just beyond the concrete cinder block building that all visitors had to pass through, the awkward moment that all our efforts had failed to prevent was at hand. Only a few of us remained to say our final good-byes. On a small plastic table in the corner, the fruit, chips and sodas supplied by the prison for our comfort remained untouched.
I sat next to Jay at the heavy wooden table that dominated the small, windowless room, scarred by the carvings of thousands of prison visitors over many decades. He asked us to take each other’s hands, smiling in that quiet, calming way he had.
“Only my body will die tonight,” he said, intending for that to comfort us. “My soul will return in another form. Look for me in your gardens. I will come to you as a butterfly.”
I forced the tears back down through the ducts that emptied into my eyes, forced a smile, and squeezed the diminutive fingers that rested in my large hand.
Later, when it was done (always in the name of the People of California of whom I am one), I could not find a Buddhist place in my heart to cope. I had to get away, to separate myself from human life so as not to reveal the bile that had been welling up for days, and which now threatened to explode out of me. I drove to the desert, arriving late at night. Under a brilliant star-lit sky, I pitched my tent and burrowed deep into my sleeping bag, the total darkness mirroring my mood.
I sat in silence, glaring at Dr. Andrews, wishing I had never come. A cheap white egg timer with one of those wind-up dials sat on an end table next to the green naugahyde leather chair that he sat in, legs crossed, and audibly ticked away the seconds that Judith was paying for. Neither of us spoke for what seemed like an eternity, and then the prompt: “But why did
you laugh,” Dr. Andrews asked me. He had read my sad account of flight into the desert following Jay’s execution. “What’s so funny about a
yellowjacket landing on your arm?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it was just… I don’t know.”
“Whenever a patient of mine says ‘I don’t know,’ I know we’re close to something important. So let me ask you again, what about that situation
made you laugh?”
I thought, do I have to replay all of that again? Doesn’t he understand what I’ve been through? “I didn’t really laugh,” I said, “I just smiled, that’s
“But you used the word “genuine” when you described that smile. I take that to mean you are contrasting that smile with previous smiles. Why?
What made this smile ‘genuine’ and other smiles fake?”
He’s either dense as fuck, I thought, or he’s enjoying this. “I hadn’t thought of it that way, but maybe you’re right. I guess what I mean by ‘genuine’ is that all the smiling we did in that room, all those little jokes we
told to make Jay laugh… to make ourselves laugh… It’s like how I imagine it must be if your friend’s dying of AIDS, or something. You don’t want to
sit around an’ just cry, even if that’s what you feel like doing. You want… I don’t know… You want to keep things light, ‘cause otherwise, you get crushed by the dark, and that doesn’t help your friend at all.”
“Why did you choose AIDS as your example?”
“You’re missing the point, Doctor. I could have picked any end-of-life disease. Cancer. Okay? Let’s say cancer.”
“But you didn’t say cancer. You said AIDS.”
Fuck! I knew this was crazy! I told Judith I didn’t need to talk to anyone, but she… Well, she pays my salary, so when she tells me to talk to someone…
“Forget the fucking AIDS,” I said, wanting to scream at him. Strangely, though, the words came out not as an explosion, but like pellets,
each syllable compressed into its own hissed and voiceless scream. I wanted to run from the room.
“I wanted to run out of that place,” I said, “but I couldn’t. I couldn’t abandon him. I was with him for so many years. I knew so much about him.
I knew his mother and his siblings. I got to walk around in that disgusting whorehouse where he was raised by that uncle who, even then, even with his nephew on death row, tried to extort money from me. I couldn’t run. I had to stay and pretend, pretend to smile and laugh, pretend that nothing was going to happen, pretend that I wasn’t looking at my watch. But I was! While I was laughing, I could see that relentless second hand moving forward, moving him closer to being nothing but a memory…”
“That’s another interesting choice of words,” he began, but I
continued as if he was irrelevant.
“Nothing! Nothing but a story. I hate telling the story. I hate it! It’s like I’m using him. Like the lawyer that showed up for twenty minutes so she could tell her friends about it. I actually heard her telling another lawyer later, after it was done, that ‘They had to rip him out of my embrace.’ Fucking bullshit! Bullshit! She was there for twenty minutes! She never even took off her jacket. She wasn’t even there when they took him away in
chains. Nobody ripped him from her arms. Nobody ripped him from anybody’s arms. She stayed for twenty minutes, shook his hand and told him
what a wonderful man he was. Then she left. But she got her story. Just like me!”
“Why do you think you have so much anger about the lawyer? Do you blame her for failing to save him? Could she have done more?”
God, what is the matter with this man?
"Are you displacing anger at your own failure onto his attorney?”
“My failure? Yes! Yes! And not just mine, all of ours. We all own this failure. That attorney least of all because she was only his attorney in name,
not in fact. She did nothing but talk about the case. It was others, many others, who did the work. And yes, we failed… I failed.”