Four Walls, A Sink, A Table, and A Bed


All names of persons and locations have been changed due to privacy concerns.

During the first half of his life, David had many rooms. Too many rooms to count. He had so many rooms that each one had its own special function. There was a room for sleeping, and another for eating; rooms for working and shopping and watching TV, and a room with the sole purpose of connecting two other rooms. The older David got, the more rooms he acquired. Some of them contained his things, and those rooms he kept. But other rooms he used just once or twice. A room for getting drunk, a room for losing his virginity, a room for watching the birth of his son. Back then, in its first half, David’s life expanded to fill all the space in all the rooms he had ever known. 

Now, David only has two rooms. One of them, the chapel, belongs to everyone. It’s really just an open space with benches running along the walls where David goes once a week to pray. The other one is all his own. It’s small, about five by eight feet, and very sparse. The walls, ceiling and floor are made of concrete, covered by a thin skin of peeling paint. There’s a sink in the corner, and a stainless steel toilet beside it. In the other corner is a bed. On the bed sits David. He’s a heavyset man, somewhere in his late fifties, with a jowly face, short black hair cut close to the scalp, and small, heavy-lidded black eyes. He sits with his back to the wall and his legs extended over the side of the bed. It’s midnight and the room is black, except for the electric-blue glow of David’s cell phone, illuminating the underside of his face. David has been sitting like this for hours, scrolling through his emails. He reads them slowly, savoring every word, dragging each one out as long as possible. He’s waiting for the noise outside to die down. He can’t sleep with the noise. 

The phone is expressly prohibited; it’s contraband. David bought it from one of the other inmates, a guy with a reputation for being able to get things. He can call, write texts, emails, watch TV—as long as he doesn’t get caught. It’s the raids he has to watch out for, when the guards show up unannounced to search his cell. But David has a good hiding space, a little crack in the wall below his bed. And the guards rarely look too hard. They’re mostly on the watch for drugs and alcohol. They’ll come in for a moment and give David’s cell a once-over so they can say they hit every room. But they know there’s no point, they won’t find anything there. 

David is always awakened early, around 3:30 in the morning, by the clatter of a metal tray dropped on the concrete floor by one of the guards. “Breakfast!” He props himself on his elbow. It’s the usual: salmon patties and a single cross-section of boiled carrot, a staple of the 65 cent-a-day diet the prison has been implementing ever since budget cuts. David falls back against his bed. The springs sag and moan. He has to be careful; these beds are old, and if this one breaks there’s no guarantee he’ll get a new one. David stares at the ceiling and lets the tray sit there. Some days his stomach just won’t stand the fish. 

A couple days a week, David gets to leave his cell to go to work. David’s a mopper. He spends hours carving a glistening wet path through the grimy prison hallways, inhaling odors of sweat, dirt, and mop water that have come to signify a brief spell of freedom. Every now and then he snatches the opportunity to talk to one of his neighbors, like Stewart. Stewart lives one cell down from David. They’ve been friends a long time, long enough for David to watch Stewart’s son grow up, visit by visit, from a kid of age four or five into an adult, in his thirties, with a job and a wife and kids of his own. Their mothers are friendly, too. Often the two of them carpool together to the prison. David takes breaks from his work to knock on Stewart’s door. They exchange a few words about their mornings, or football, or news from home, before David has to move on down the hallway again with his mop and bucket.

David knows this place well. He’s been here longer than nearly everyone else in the prison. This is Alabama’s St. Claire Correctional Facility, where the state houses the prisoners on death row. They brought him here 31 years ago, when he was only 28 years old, and gave him a day to die. Every man in this prison has his day. David’s been lucky, he’s managed to postpone his longer than most. But he’s watched as dozens of men he knows, friends and enemies, named and nameless faces, are replaced by strangers. He tries not to get too close to them anymore. Eventually they all will go. David’s been here long enough to know how to make things easier for himself.

There’s a leak in the corner of his cell ceiling. They gave him a bucket to hold the water—navy blue, with a shiny metal handle. The color of that blue bucket in this drab, gray cell is like a red balloon in the hand of a girl he’d once seen in an art book. It’s lovely to look at. Sometimes it’s all he looks at for hours. Plunk, plunk, plunk. The water level rises, slowly, slowly. One day the bucket will be full, and what then?

Each new day drips into the others. David wakes; he reads and writes emails and watches TV; he passes the hours in thought. He eats lunch: a chili mixture over rice, cold and gummy. Sometimes he watches the sky. There are no windows in his cell, so he has to look out through a little glass pane set in the door to the windows in the hallway. But the windows are off to the right a bit, so sometimes he presses himself against the wall to the left of the door and angles his gaze through the glass at the clouds floating outside. Occasionally he is allowed to shower. He says his prayers. He sleeps. 

Once a week the guards bring everyone outside for an hour. There’s a small slab of concrete in the back of the prison with a basketball hoop and a volleyball net and some gym equipment in the corner. The other men become loud when they get outside. David can’t stand the noise, especially the obscenities. But he’s learned to cherish this hour. He can see the sky, the whole sky, not just the square foot of air outside the hallway window. He can walk around, if he wants to; he can jump and run and shout. Or he can just stand back and watch, as all around him men whirl by in the amnesiac euphoria of sport. The hour is gone too soon. The guards prop open the door leading back inside, and the noise is extinguished in an instant.

Four walls, a sink, a toilet and a bed. David paces his little square of space. He’s waiting. He’s been waiting for half his life. He reads emails and letters and texts from friends he’s never met. Friends writing from all over the country, from kitchens and bedrooms, bathrooms and classrooms, in the idle hours of their busy lives. David loves to hear about what they’re doing. In his room, he’s building something with the stories of other people, stacking them one on top of another like stones. He’s building a bridge out, beyond the seal of his cell, to the world beyond. In those midnight hours, by the electric-blue glow of his phone, David walks his bridge out of that cell. At least for a little while.

David will never inhabit another room, not until the day they finally kill him. They’ll lead him from his cell to a nondescript little space in a different part of the complex, past rows of cells that look a lot like his. They’ll sit him down and read some words in a flat voice from an official document. Then they’ll stick a needle in his arm. Everyone, free or imprisoned, eventually gets a room for dying.

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