At ten o’clock at night, Carl Roche got out of bed and got dressed. After dressing, he took the gun that was on the dresser and checked the chamber. “I got a loaded gun, and now I have t’ find someone to shoot. I think I’ll rob a liquor store, and if I have t’ kill someone, then I have t’ kill someone,” he said, left his rooming-house and went across the street to a liquor store. As he walked to the store, he didn’t notice an unmarked police car in which there were two detectives watching him.
“There he goes, Harry. Let’s go. He’s crazy, so keep your gun handy,” Sam said, and they left their car.
No one was in the store except the clerk, and Carl walked up to the counter and pointed his gun at the clerk. “Okay, gimmie all y’ money?”
“Okay, mister, take it easy,” he said, took all the cash out of the cash register, and gave the money to Carl.
“Hey, there isn’t enough here. Are you tryin’ t’ cheat me?” Carl growled and shot the man just as the detectives rushed in. “He was tryin’ t’ cheat me,” Carl yelled to the detectives as they cuffed him. Sam called an ambulance for the wounded clerk as Carl was taken to a waiting police car.
Carl Roche pulled at his collar while he looked behind him at the packed courtroom. As he turned back and slouched in his chair, the judge entered, all stood and the judge gestured the crowd to sit.
“The prisoner will rise,” and Carl and his lawyer stood, and the judge glared at Carl, “Carl Roche, you have been found guilty of six counts of murder in the first degree. The jury, having found you guilty of the charges, has decreed that you shall pay for your crimes with your life. You are hereby sentenced to death by lethal injection. Take the prisoner away.” After the sentencing, the prisoner was shackled and taken to the van that waited to take him to the Franklin maximum-security penitentiary where he would await execution. It was a happy day for all, including his attorney.
Carl’s attorney met with Carl at the penitentiary to explain the appeals process, but Carl was not concerned about appeals. He was concerned about being put to death. “Y’ gotta get me off death row,” he pleaded with his attorney. “I don’t mind me killin’ people, but I do mind people killin’ me,” he said seriously.”
“Sorry, Carl. It’s out of my hands.”
As weeks turned into months, Carl began to wonder if the isolation of death row would kill him before his scheduled appointment with the needle. He began to exercise, and, as the days went by, he exercised longer and harder to combat the isolation and boredom. He decided that he had to keep moving or death row was going to kill him. As it turned out, it was Carl, himself, who almost cheated the state out of its chance to execute the killer, for, at his one hundred and thirty ninth sit up, Carl suffered a heart attack and was taken to a hospital.
While Carl was on the operating table being saved so that he could be executed, he died. Fortunately for the state, Carl did not die permanently; he was brought back by skilled physicians who were determined to save his life.
“It was the most incredible experience,” Carl blabbered to his lawyer from his hospital bed. “I actually left my body and floated up. I remember lookin’ down and seein’ the doctors working on me. Then I looked up, and above me, I seen a white light, a blindin’, bright light. As I stared at the light, it changed, very slowly; it went from bright to a soft glow. Then I seen a long tunnel. At the end was a light, and there was people wearin’ white robes. They was all walkin’ toward the light at the end, and it was warm and peaceful. I felt like I was bein’ pulled toward the tunnel, but I couldn’t go. I looked down and seen the doctors workin’ on me; I looked up and saw the tunnel. I was in the middle.”
Though Carl’s grammar was killing his lawyer, he listened trying to sound as though he cared. “I’ve heard of stories like yours, Carl. People who have died on the operating table and were brought back to life claim to have had experiences like yours. They all said that after their experience, they were almost anxious to die; they wanted to get back to the tunnel. Intriguing idea, isn’t it?”
Carl was released from the prison hospital and returned to death row. When he got back to his cell, he found a book that his attorney had sent to him. It was a collection of near-death experiences. Carl couldn’t read very well, so he read the book very slowly, struggling with the words as he read. The more he read, the more he was convinced that he had seen heaven.
As time went on, and, as he thought about his experience, he became absolutely positive that death was what he wanted. He wanted to go to heaven. “I want y’ to stop my appeals. I wanna die. I wanna die as soon as possible,” he urged, and his lawyer did not argue.
Carl was reading his book as four guards entered the cell. Carl placed his book on his cot and stood up. “Okay, let’s get this show on the road,” he said and he walked willingly, if not anxiously, from his cell to the waiting execution chamber.
At 12:01 a.m., Carl died and floated above the execution chamber. He was suspended in space and looked down at his still body. Carl felt himself being pulled by something to somewhere. Suddenly, he was standing in a warm, glowing mist. It was like a fog, but it was warm and dry. The mist began to clear and he saw again what he saw when he almost died from his heart attack; it was the tunnel with the light at the end and people wearing white robes walking toward the light.
He looked at himself; he was wearing a long, white robe. Everything was warm and glowing and white. Suddenly, he was in the tunnel walking with the others. Carl strained to see what was at the end of the tunnel. He imagined scenes of gardens and women and everything a person in heaven could want. It seemed to Carl that he wasn’t getting any closer to the end of the tunnel. He looked around at the others; they just walked and paid no attention to him. Carl decided he would get out of line and jog past everyone. He tried but he couldn’t. It was as though he had no control over his body. It was as though he and his body were separate. He wanted to go ahead of everyone, but his body would only stay in line. It was time to find out what was going on. Why was he walking but getting nowhere? He decided that he would ask the person in front of him. He tried to lift his arm, so he could poke the man in front of him on the shoulder, but nothing happened. He had no control of his arm nor his mouth. His body wasn’t working the way he wanted it to work, and he realized that there was no sound; there was dead silence. He heard himself thinking, wondering what was going on. He looked down and saw his feet moving his body forward, step-by-step, but he couldn’t feel his feet moving. Something was wrong. He was walking, but the end of the tunnel was no closer than it was when he started. When did he start? He tried to remember; he couldn’t. His body continued to move forward, but where was it going? “What’s going on?” he screamed silently. “Why am I walking but getting nowhere? Where am I? I can’t go on like this forever.”
Carl was wrong. The procession of white-robed bodies continued to move toward the light at the end of the endless tunnel. Like the others, Carl would walk in this lonely, boring procession forever.
By Saul Greenblatt