There are three things to consider when choosing your last meal: the past, the present, and the future. Tom Johnson thought of this through the curtains of his tortured mind. His past was for his innocence, his present was for his guilt, and his future, was for his redemption. That was all there was to life, and if he could find the meal that reflected all those three things, then he could live a lifetime in the time he had left.
He had time to himself to ponder these questions. Time if not silence. Random noises, calls for lawyers, protestations of fellow prisoners, snoring, moaning, belching, coughing, fighting, screaming, scratching, sobbing…these were normal to him now. They were almost as soothing as the waves of the ocean against the shore.
He had visited the ocean in North Carolina as a young boy. His aunt had a house there. He still remembered the wind. The unexpected saltiness of the sea. The whiteness of the sand, how it burned his feet. He almost drowned once. The sea pulled at him as a wave receded, and he had to fight in a panic against it. Even with his efforts it was too much for his little body. His mother had to save him. They had supper that night at a Cajun restaurant. Frog legs were on the menu. Unlike his sister who made faces at the name of the dish, Tom felt it was his duty to order it. His mother had asked him why his face had been so serious. “I won’t let the Under Toad get my sister,” he had said.
His mother and father had laughed. So had his sister and aunt. He knew vaguely that he had made a mistake, but he did not know exactly where he was wrong. His child’s mind had been perfectly fine with holding both the idea of a giant invisible toad that pulled children under the water, and the many small frogs that hopped as being part of the same malignant force. He didn’t feel any less valiant, for the laughter, and at any rate, the frog legs tasted good. He remembered laughing himself, saying “Take that, Under Toad!” and dancing in triumphant joy.
Frog legs then.
The floor of the prison was checked tile. Like the floor of a school, government building, or bank. His bed was a one inch mattress on an iron cot. His toilet was a brushed metal bowl sticking out of the concrete wall. The other three walls were bars, like the bars in front of the bank vault he had broken into. He could see the fluorescent lights above through the bars of the ceiling. They shone down on him like the judgment of God. At night when they went dark it was like God turning away in disgust. These were the thoughts of a man with much free time at his disposal. A man alone with his thoughts so often that he could hold things to be true that were distinct opposites. He could believe in the same moment that God was watching, and also that He had forsaken him. He could feel the guilt at what he had done yet crave the chance to do it again, to get it right this time. He could think of that moment as the worst and the best of his life.
After the bank robbery, he Sammy, and Rob crossed the state line and stopped at a restaurant to celebrate. It wasn’t a fast food place, but it wasn’t exactly high end either. It was one of those chain restaurants that had commercials on TV of appetizers getting splashed into sauces in slow motion and pretty yet approachable women tilting their heads back and laughing at something unheard, but likely mischievous, the men next to them whispered in their ears. It was stupid to go somewhere like that. Somewhere where there were more televisions on the walls than an electronics store, with each of them tuned to network stations showing sports for now, but all too ready to interrupt the broadcast with breaking news about a bank robbery perpetrated by three suspects that should be considered armed and dangerous.
And yet Tom would not have changed that. Were he to advise his younger self, he would have told him to go to that very restaurant, and order the very same thing he ordered back then: a twelve dollar cheeseburger, cooked medium rare with sweet potato fries and a dark beer. At the moment he bit into that juicy cheeseburger, sauce seeping onto his hands from the bun, he was a millionaire and so were his friends. That moment was the best moment of his life. Even if the next moment was his worst.
Tom didn’t shoot anyone.
It was Rob. He shot the bartender when she refused to change the station. He shot the man who tried to leave while they were all trying to figure out what to do. And it was Rob that shot the cop that came in trying to negotiate.
The problem was that Rob got shot. And someone had to maintain order. And Sammy was threatening to surrender.
It couldn’t end like that. There had to be a way to win. There had to be a way to undo everything that had gone wrong. There had to be a way to save everybody. To get the money to his sister somehow so she could go to that university she wanted to go to. To get the money to his mother so she could keep the house. And yes, to keep some for himself, because that was part of the bright future he had seen in his head for months as they had planned this whole operation. So he had picked the gun up. He told everyone to stay down. And he had to threaten them. And they remembered his face when he threatened them. And when the police shot him from out the window, catching his shoulder instead of his heart, by a quirk of chance, the pistol he was holding fell to his feet, and the pistol had his fingerprints on the handle.
Most people don’t like complicated stories. Most people like things simple. Some people are cops. Some people are jurors, but they all prefer things simple. Even Tom’s lawyer looked suspicious when he explained what happened. “Why would you pick up the gun then?” he asked, “You had to know the situation was hopeless. The police had you surrounded.”
The situation was not hopeless. Not to Tom, who always had hope. But how could he explain that to someone for whom hope was another word for naiveté? How could he explain that to a jury of people who couldn’t conceive of holding people at gunpoint as anything other than a cruel and evil act? How could he convince a cop to be lenient because he was in a desperate situation, when every cop makes his or her living stopping desperate people?
Perhaps if Tom understood himself as fully as he eventually managed in his cell on death row, he could have said that he was arrogant. That he had an unrealistic opinion of himself and his relationship with fate. But during his arrest and trial, all he could say was that he had to pick up the gun. How could he not try to get out?
The prosecutor seized on this. She said that Tom wanted to get out to kill again.
And so now Tom sat on the floor of his cell awaiting the man who would ask for his last meal.
Frog legs and a 12 dollar cheeseburger. Past and present. That left the future.
The future was something Tom was likely not going to be present for. But even as he was sure of that, he still envisioned getting out of jail, finding a job as a professor of philosophy, buying a small chalet somewhere in the mountains where he may occasionally have to fight off bears. He was looking forward to the bears almost as much as everything else. His chalet wouldn’t have heat either, so he would have to go out and cut wood for a fire. And the snow would be three feet thick some days and he would have to shovel it to get the wood. He would have to spend days by himself. Or maybe with a companion. Anne-Marie it was sometimes. She had been his almost girlfriend when the robbery occurred. Only almost, because one or two dates didn’t seem like enough to constitute a relationship. She didn’t have anything to do with him afterwards of course.
Sometimes his companion was someone from the news or TV. Usually it was someone everyone thought had done something despicable. It wasn’t a sexual fantasy, even if sex was sometimes a part of it, often the dream was simply him having a conversation with the person, coming to see things from their point of view. He would have a hot cocoa with them and wish them well. Sometimes after cocoa they would stab him in the heart with a bowie knife. Sometimes there was sex. Sometimes both things happened.
Tom studied Psychology. He recognized that some of his thoughts could be interpreted as “ideations of grandeur.” When someone talked to him about some celebrity or criminal and the thought came to him that the person had recently had sex with him and then killed him, he knew that hadn’t actually happened, and so he said nothing. If he actually believed the things he dreamed were real they would be full on delusions of grandeur, and he might be diagnosed as schizophrenic. Sometimes he wished he could let go of his dreams as purely silly, or fully accept them as part of his reality. But he could do neither. He was only almost crazy, just like everyone else. He also probably didn’t have a brain tumor, something he feared and hoped for in the same way.
He was going to die tonight of a lethal injection. He would get to have one last meal and then he would go to a room where several witness would watch as he drifted off to oblivion one last time. Still, he could imagine instead, that he was at his chalet. That he had just fought off a bear, and that he was about to have cocoa with someone accused of some heinous crime.
Frog legs, a twelve-dollar cheeseburger, and a hot cocoa. Past, present, and future. Not a bad meal, Tom decided.
The question of the last meal was asked, and Tom answered.
Some time later, the meal came.
As he started on the frog legs, Tom thought of Socrates, his favorite philosopher. He was forced to commit suicide for being annoying. For questioning people. He also once said that it would be better to be an innocent in prison, than to be guilty and be free. Tom wasn’t innocent or guilty. He was both, or at least he couldn’t decide one way or the other. Still the thought gave him peace.
He thought of his sister and mother as he bit into his cheeseburger. His sister had become a defense attorney, disgusted with the way Tom’s trial had gone. After she passed her bar, Tom had to fight to keep her from appealing his case. He would use a public defender rather than let her get involved with the whole thing more than she already was. He told her to change her name. Move to a different state. Live her life.
His mother had found another man after his father had passed away. His job didn’t make him rich, but it let his mother live comfortably. She still visited. She still got angry whenever the trial came up, there was never any doubt in her mind that Tom was innocent. Tom always knew with a certainty, whenever he talked with his mother, that if he ever did go free, he would end up ruining his mother’s life.
Even as the tears came as he finished his cheeseburger, he knew he would do it again. Not just with some hypothetical time machine, but in a hypothetical future. He knew some compulsive gamblers from his days in the general population. It wasn’t just the wins that kept them coming back to the table. It was the losses too. That idea that if only things were different…
If he could get out, he would live alone. He’d make money robbing banks, and he’d get a chalet in the mountains, where he would fight bears and have cocoa with serial killers.
Tom sipped his hot cocoa as he heard the steps of the warden coming down the hall. The whole American legal system really had a bad rap, he figured. The government was just doing its job, keeping the bad people off the streets.
The door to his cell opened, and Tom took one last sip.
As he shuffled to the execution chamber, he imagined his sister, working tirelessly without his knowledge, had somehow uncovered new DNA evidence that proved he hadn’t shot those people. Something more substantial than the lack of gunshot residue on his hands or the footage on the security video that the jury wasn’t allowed to see. Something that would force people to look beyond his obvious guilt to his less obvious innocence.
Tom imagined the evidence being presented to the President of the United States, and the President at the zeroth hour, sending a pardon by post or telegram or pigeon or some other byzantine and antiquated method to the warden.
As Tom entered the execution chamber, the curtain was spread open and he saw his sister and mother. He saw the brother of the cop that got killed, and the father of the bartender.
Tom smiled as the first round of drugs dragged him under the sea, into the darkness.
He was absolved.