Dead Man Walking, a Play by Danny Dourado
(Lights up. Allan B. Polunsky Unit, Building 12, the home of the death row prisoners of Texas. The play opens at the execution of MAINE, a prisoner of five years. MAINE sits in the electric chair in the centre of the stage. The rest of the stage is bare and clinical. A thin guard, POLUNSKY, is strapping him in and applying the sponges to his pads, while a younger GUARD is tapping his foot impatiently to the side. MAINE is watching POLUNSKY work with curiosity, while POLUNSKY is avoiding making eye contact.)
POLUNSKY: (To MAINE) The first jolt’s gonna knock you out. It won’t be pleasant, but you shouldn’t feel anything. Then there’ll be a second to knock out your vital organs, though your brain should go on the first one, so y’know...
(MAINE says nothing while POLUNSKY talks. The GUARD reappears in a small box above the stage, to the side of the main set, in a room that’s poorly lit and sound-proofed. All that can be seen is the switch on the wall.)
POLUNSKY: I got a burnin’ curiosity.
MAINE: A what?
POLUNSKY: Y’know, an itch to ask something.
MAINE: An itch. That’s a funny way of putting it.
POLUNSKY: (Sniffs) I been here almost as long as you have and I still don’t know your damn name.
MAINE: (Speaks as if reciting from memory) S’against prison regulations. No names between inmates and officers. No bonding of any sort and certainly no opportunity for any newsfolk to get a sniff on anyone’s story. You’ll be known by the state that you were born from, and the one that’s disownin’ you. That’s what the warden said.
POLUNSKY: I ask everyone before they go.
MAINE: I’d rather not say. And don’t tell me yours neither. I already got a name for you picked out.
(GUARD speaks through microphone that can be heard in the room.)
GUARD: 30 seconds!
POLUNSKY: (Shouting to the GUARD) Where’s the Doc?
GUARD: It don’t matter, we’ll know if he’s dead or not. Hurry it up!
(POLUNSKY glances over to the door briefly and fidgets.)
POLUNSKY: What’s my name then?
POLUNSKY: Charmin’, that’s the damn building’s name. I don’t wanna be named after this Hellhole.
MAINE: Sorry, it’s just what I think of.
POLUNSKY: Nah, I’m sorry, shouldn’t be makin’ you feel guilty before you go.
MAINE: Oh, I don’t feel guilty. Just thought I should say sorry. S’what folk do.
POLUNSKY: Fair enough. In another life, then.
(POLUNSKY steps away. MAINE is calm.)
GUARD: (Through microphone) 10 seconds!
(MAINE starts counting quietly, eyes still shut. He shows no sign of tension, and by the time he reaches 3, he has fallen silent. Nothing happens. GUARD pulls the switch, and there is a loud click. Nothing happens.)
(Beat. POLUNSKY is confused. He strides offstage. MAINE is obviously beginning to become anxious. POLUNSKY heads into the box. GUARD shakes his head and shrugs. POLUNSKY lifts the switch and slams it down again to another click. MAINE flinches.)
(Both GUARD and POLUNSKY head back onstage. The GUARD is nervous while POLUNSKY is at ease.)
MAINE: I ain’t dead.
POLUNSKY: No, you ain’t. Chair’s shot to Hell. No idea what’s goin’ on.
GUARD: Heck, we gotta get someone in to fix this, they won’t let us do it and botch it up. If his head ends up catchin’ fire cause we put the wrong wires together then we’ll be out of a job.
(MAINE is in shock. POLUNSKY begins to undo his straps slowly, starting at his wrists.)
GUARD: What’re you doin’?
POLUNSKY: What do you think? He’s goin’ back to his cell.
GUARD: You can’t do that!
POLUNSKY: Got a better idea? We ain’t exactly gonna kill him ourselves.
(He fingers the gun at his side.)
POLUNSKY: Unless you wanna have a go in this chair yourself, you’ll shut up.
(MAINE laughs uncharacteristically loud in relief. The GUARD and POLUNSKY ignore him as they undo his straps. Lights down.)
(Lights up on a cell with a bunk bed and bucket. Shouting can be heard from outside the cell. POLUNSKY can be heard calling to get through the crowd. MAINE eventually enters. He is curious about his new home. POLUNSKY is behind him, out of breath from the struggle.)
POLUNSKY: Welcome to your new home. For now, anyway.
MAINE: How long will I be here?
POLUNSKY: Couldn’t tell you. It’s the weird world of legality. Technically you died in that chair, cause the time when you were meant to die has passed, and since no one expected you to be alive you don’t have a room to go back to. It’s gonna be used by a proper celebrity, a nephew of some senator apparently. So you’re gonna have to sit tight here for awhile. You’ll be able to hear ‘em protestors from here, I’m afraid. I don’t even know how they found out about it, someone must be gettin’ slipped some cash... Those reporters are like roaches. No stompin’ is good enough.
MAINE: So I might be here for awhile?
(A bell is heard offstage to summon the inmates back to their cells. POLUNSKY does not know what to say to MAINE so leaves. MAINE continues to seem lost in this new cell. Lights fade down until there’s only a spotlight on MAINE.)
MAINE: Everyone thought I should’ve fried. Hell, maybe I did and I’m makin’ all this up. This don’t seem right. (Beat) Dyin’ was right. Everyone told me that dyin’ was right. All them people out there are shouting that dyin’ is right. (Bursts out laughing again) No, I ain’t dead. I’m still goin’. There ain’t a chance of somethin’ like that happenin’. Not one. Christ, six years. Six years I been waitin’ for that chair, and on the one day I’m to fry it breaks? In six years I didn’t hear of that happenin’ once... That’s a long time to wait to die, and I’d only just gotten the hang of it too. The waitin’. Maybe they know that and this is some new punishment.
VOICE OFFSTAGE: Oh, HELL no.
(The sound of the jail door being swung open. The voice reveals itself to belong to MAINE’s inmate, a thin man with sallow skin. He wears tattoos along both arms and has ripped his uniform in order to show them off. MAINE stands, unsure of himself. TATTOOS is furious. He strides straight up to MAINE and stares him straight in the eyes)
TATTOOS: My cell. You get to sit in my cell?
(MAINE doesn’t speak. TATTOOS is furious.)
TATTOOS: You deaf as well as retarded, you ugly shit?
MAINE: I didn’t think that was a question.
(TATTOOS spits in his face. MAINE is unfazed.)
TATTOOS: And now you’re smilin’ at me. This is sick. This ain’t RIGHT! Who the Hell thinks that I should be sat next to you?! PUT THE FREAK IN GARRETT’S CELL! At least he’s as demented as this... this... Y’know what I’ve done? Fuckin’ peeping. I got caught with some pics of some high school gals. That’s some weak-ass reason to be sittin’ in a cell with you, that’s for sure.I may be stupid, but you are just sick. I don’t care if they can’t kill you, cause they sure as heck won’t have to. The guys here will do that for ‘em. And if you ain’t watchin’, I’ll do it.
MAINE: Then you’ll be the one they’re tryin’ to get in a chair.
TATTOOS: (Laughs) Like anyone’ll care. Killin’ scum don’t make you scum. I’d like to see you last a day, tops. (He draws a rough knife from his clothes discreetly.)
MAINE: (Smirks) You think you’ve got a chance of doing what that chair couldn’t do? (Tense, but speaks calmly and firmly) You can’t hurt me. What kinda power you think you got that you’re gonna try and take my life? You think you have it in you? I sat in that chair ready to fry, calm as anythin’, with no last words to God and no sobbin’. If that couldn’t kill me, you think you’re gonna?
TATTOOS: This ain’t to kill you, it’s to protect me. (He circles MAINE, still clinging to the wall, until he is on the other side of him. He does not stop pointing the knife at him.) You stay away from me, you got that? You stay over there, on the floor, where you belong.Moment you get a bed I’m gonna be pissin’ all over it. Welcome to your new home.
(A Guard shouts “LIGHTS OUT” from offstage and the lights go down, leaving MAINE in a spotlight again. Lights down.)
(Lights fade up slowly. Night time. TATTOOS is sleeping, but MAINE is sleeping poorly. Outside can be heard the constant shouts of the protestors, eventually forming the words “DEAD MAN WALKING”. The protestors take this as their slogan and it becomes louder and louder, until MAINE wakes up with a start and a spotlight forms on him.)
MAINE: Never thought sleepin’d be so hard. Guess havin’ my eyes closed for that long ain’t so appealing anymore. Used t’ sleep whole days away if Polunsky’d let me. Could barely move my body the first couple o’ weeks after my sentence. Thought it’d all gone numb, tryin’ to make me sleep the years away so I wouldn’t have to wait. I only got to move again when I got curious. Started wondering what death’d be like. The more I thought ‘bout it, the less numb I felt. I couldn’t imagine my body stoppin’, my chest still or anythin’, so I just kept movin’ enough to make sure it was still there. I liked the cell cause it didn’t make me do anythin’, just let me think. My eyelids ain’t as heavy as they used to be.
MAINE: I thought I was ready cause I was so tired. Didn’t make sense to me to bother wakin’ up anymore... Hell, I probably could’ve slept in the chair. ‘Cept... well, ‘cept that ain’t true. I thought I was ready... then I heard that click and... Maybe if I’d died there I would’ve been ready. But that didn’t happen... this is all special. This ain’t happened before. Somethin’ didn’t want me dead. I could’ve gone then without even a peep, and no one woulda made a fuss, least of all me. Now I can’t even close my eyes to sleep.
MAINE: The Hell am I still here for?
(Lights down. Spotlight remains on MAINE. Projection plays on prison wall behind him of MARCUS CARTWRIGHT, the man who will be living in MAINE’s old cell. He is having his criminal record photographs taken, and looks haggard and bewildered. ‘DEAD MAN WALKING’ chant begins again, growing louder. MAINE is unaware of its presence. Once the photos are done MARCUS is escorted away, the projection ends and the chant abruptly stops. Spotlight down.)
(Lights up. TATTOOS is energetic and antagonising guards. MAINE avoids him.)
TATTOOS: Hey! HEY! I don’t mean to be troublin’ or nothin’ but if you’re gonna stick me with a dead man like ‘im can you at least treat me to a bit more food? Maybe a jug of wa’er? I’m practically dyin’ of thirst, it’s hotter than the Devil’s drawers in here!
(POLUNSKY walks into cell.)
POLUNSKY: Maine. You’ve got a visitor. Your sister wants a word. (POLUNSKY looks at him) You look a bit sharper.
TATTOOS: (Cocky) I thought dead men don’t get visitors? Maybe she’ll wanna spend some alone time with me instead.
POLUNSKY: S’long as they ain’t carryin’ a big scythe and apologisin’ for bein’ late then it don’t bother me. If he is dead, no one’s gonna care that someone came to see him. Move it, Maine.
(The two exit the cell, lights down. When the lights return the stage has been rearranged to make a small visiting room. A table is placed in the centre of the stage with a chair on either side, and a woman sits waiting. The GUARD from earlier is stood to attention behind the woman as POLUNSKY and MAINE enter.)
POLUNSKY: Pulled some strings, ma’am. Here’s your man.
(The woman stays sitting, clearly nervous. MAINE is not giving anything away. POLUNSKY attempts to ease the tension.)
POLUNSKY: (To MAINE) Looks like it continues to be your week. (Sniffs, then speaks to SISTER) I’ll leave you two to it. S’not like you’re gonna make a ruckus now, are you?
(POLUNSKY leaves. MAINE is still standing and staring at the woman, who is matching his stare. GUARD appears concerned.)
SISTER: This must be strange for you, I know... You’re not an easy man to get hold of, you know that? It’s bad enough that they change your name like that but funnily enough it’s hard work gettin’ into a high-security prison jus’ to give you a firm handshake. And of course, people stopped asking ‘bout you the moment they heard you were gonna be put down, so articles dried up.
SISTER: People’re funny like that, aren’t they? S’hard for them to get justice out of something unless they paint someone black and go after them with torches and pitchforks.
MAINE: S’cuse me, but I ain’t had much conversation for the last few years. Please talk straight. Are you the one who screwed up the chair?
SISTER: (Growing more confident) Well, you sure don’t seem like you had anythin’ to do with it.
MAINE: You think I did somethin’?
SISTER: People make connections with dangerous people in places like that. Always a chance you found a way to bribe your way out.
SISTER: But I don’t think you did. I ain’t here to accuse you of anything. In fact, I’m here for the opposite.
(MAINE stands and goes for the door. SISTER leaps to her feet and heads towards him. GUARD becomes more anxious and seems ready to intervene.)
SISTER: (To MAINE) The heck you doin’?
MAINE: I don’t like the way you talk. All over the place. I hate it cause you’ve got a point, but you don’t go straight for it. I don’t like that you hide your reason from me. You ever had no reason, no point? It drives a man to bad things. So be straight or I’m pullin’ Polunsky back in here.
SISTER: Alright, alright. Then let’s talk straight.
MAINE: You ain’t my sister.
SISTER: Well, that’s better. No, I ain’t. I bribed this guy to get in. (GUARD coughs again, awkward) (To GUARD) Oh c’mon now, s’not like anyone’s goin’ to listen to a dead man, even if he did say anythin’.
MAINE: Tell me straight what you want.
SISTER: Some truth. Y’know how many weird stories there are flyin’ around about all this? No one’s willin’ to admit the chair failin’ was anyone’s fault. But you like speakin’ straight, so why don’t you tell me what you know? There’s a whole crowd of people out there bayin’ like starvin’ hounds outside a butchers. They hear some truth, they might change their tune.
(MAINE is quietly pleased. This makes SISTER hesitant.)
SISTER: You let me ask some questions then I’ll tell the best version of your story you’ve ever heard. Sound good?
MAINE: You got a burnin’ curiosity?
SISTER: Like an inferno. What do you know about Marcus Cartwright? (MAINE looks blank.) The man who’s sittin’ in your old cell right now. You ain’t met him?
MAINE: They moved me out quick when the chair failed. He the senator’s nephew?
SISTER: Who told you that?
SISTER: Is that Polunsky back there?
(MAINE nods. SISTER makes a note.)
SISTER: This Polunsky, he mention this guy a lot?
MAINE: We don’t talk much. I just like to make jokes ‘bout him when the priest’s around.
SISTER: (Disbelieving) You made jokes?
MAINE: I was comfortable there.
SISTER: On death row?
SISTER: Who’s the Priest?
MAINE: Father Thessing. He helped write my letters.
SISTER: You can’t write?
MAINE: Nor read.
SISTER: Didn’t leave yourself many career options there.
MAINE: Didn’t plan on gettin’ one anyway.
SISTER: Does Father Thessing speak to the other inmates?
MAINE: S’far as I know. I didn’t talk to ‘em.
SISTER: Did he ever mention Marcus?
SISTER: (Impatient) I’m sorry, brother dear, but you ain’t bein’ very forthcomin’. You know what I’m offerin’ here? Whatever happened to that chair’s given you a second chance. And I’m here to clinch it for you. S’long as there’s shouts for you to die then the Warden, the Governor, they’ll all come down on you to make the shoutin’ stop. But these people hear that you’re sorry, that you’ve changed, that you ain’t the man you were six years ago, they’ll stop shouting. They won’t see you as something to burn but someone, someone they almost brought a torch to. Maybe you’ll get stuck in prison for a bit but you might actually leave some day. This chance ain’t gonna come again. All I want in exchange is the truth of what happened. So you start by tellin’ me somethin’ useful and I’ll start writin’ just how sorry you really are.
MAINE: No. (Intimidating) Because I ain’t sorry. That what you like to hear?
(SISTER falls silent.)
MAINE: You don’t believe me? Miss, I ain’t ever felt anythin’ ‘bout what I did. How’s that for your story? Look in my face. (Beat. SISTER looks into his face without flinching.) I killed a woman. You see me flinchin’? You see any twitches? I killed a gal, and I didn’t even do it for a reason. I had no reason. I jus’ had a burnin’ curiosity. Had an itch. (SISTER is becoming nervous. GUARD steps forward again, hand on his gun.) S’been a curious week all over, Miss. I been saved from death. I got a big crowd shoutin’ ‘bout me. I got strange ladies sneakin’ in to talk to me. S’all very curious. Gives a man a purpose.
GUARD: (Nervous) I think your time’s up, well and truly, ma’am...
SISTER: No it ain’t. Let him talk. (She begins scribbling in her notebook under the table while looking at MAINE.)
MAINE: Now I tell you why I ain’t helpin’. I don’t care ‘bout them shoutin’ for my head. I don’t care ‘bout bein’ innocent. What I did, I don’t even care if it were wrong. But what you’re tryin’ to get to, what your reason for bein’ here is, is to find that it was nothin’ special. You wanna find that it wasn’t some angel, but a mistake. A man did it. You wanna take what makes me special away. Take my reason away. Well, I’ve told you what I did when I had no reason. You sure you still wanna ask me questions?
SISTER: (Cautious) Maybe it was special for you. Maybe the accident happened because you were meant to live... But that ain’t what I need to know it for... There’s somethin’ goin’ on here, somethin’...
MAINE: NO! (MAINE flings the table to the side. SISTER kicks herself backwards. GUARD has his gun out in an instant and is pointing it directly at MAINE’s face.Immediately after his outburst he is quiet again.)
(The door opens and POLUNSKY bursts in, his own hand at his holster. He sees the situation and places the gun back, approaching the scene calmly.)
POLUNSKY: Easy now, folks.
MAINE: She’s a reporter.
(SISTER runs. POLUNSKY takes a step but does not chase.)
POLUNSKY: Goddamnit. God damnit. (To GUARD) Alright. Maine here ain’t any trouble to anyone. He’s got a clean record in Polunsky unit. Let’s put that gun down, son.
GUARD: (Shaking) Look what he did to the table, sir!
POLUNSKY: That’s between him and the table. Maybe he’ll apologise.
(GUARD slowly lowers his gun.)
MAINE: Couple o’ days ago I wouldn’t have stopped for a gun.
POLUNSKY: Couple o’ days ago, no one had a reason to point one at you. (To GUARD) Go and get yourself a coffee. No, scratch that, you’ll just get the jitters even worse. Go have a water.
POLUNSKY: Now. ‘Fore I have to ask you how that reporter got in.
(The GUARD hesitates, then steps over the upturned table and heads out. POLUNSKY is left alone with MAINE.)
POLUNSKY: (Sniffs) Well?
MAINE: Who’s Marcus?
POLUNSKY: I tell you, you promise you ain’t gonna throw the table again?
(Beat. MAINE is emotionless.)
POLUNSKY: Some poor kid who’s been shoved through the whole process faster than a cow hit with a cattle prod. He weren’t even waitin’ two weeks for his execution date.
MAINE: He’s in my old cell?
POLUNSKY: Yeah. For a couple more days. There’s all kindsa outcry for an appeal, but after you got off like that, no one’ll wanna look at it.
MAINE: I wanna go back to my cell.
POLUNSKY: (Checks watch and sniffs) Way I see it, you’ve got a couple more minutes of visitin’ hours. I jus’ been on the phone to Building 12. They want you back. We can move you in a couple of days, then it’ll take a couple of months to get a new date. I’m afraid you got more waitin’ to do.
MAINE: That’s what I wanted anyway.
POLUNSKY: Not makin’ friends here? (Beat) I got another question for you.
MAINE: (Smiles) A burnin’ curiosity?
POLUNSKY: Heh. S’pretty simple. Why’d you chuck the table?
MAINE: (MAINE tenses) She wanted to... disprove it. That reporter thought that... the chair...
POLUNSKY: Easy, there. You think God saved you?
(MAINE looks defensive, but POLUNSKY is asking straight.)
MAINE: I don’t believe in none of that. But...
POLUNSKY: Good. You think God would want to keep you alive? (He stands and heads for the door. He pauses.) You were so calm, when I sat you in that chair. You moved like you were already dead.
MAINE: I think I already was.
POLUNSKY: If you had to sit in that chair now, could you do that again?
MAINE: (Quietly, as if scared of the answer) Why ain’t I dead?
(POLUNSKY is clearly torn. With MAINE no longer watching he openly struggles with the decision to talk to him.)
POLUNSKY: One last curiosity, Maine. Before I put you in the chair... were you happy? Happy to die?
MAINE: No. I wasn’t anythin’ then.
POLUNSKY: (Sighs) That’s better than nothin’.
(POLUNSKY settles himself.)
POLUNSKY: Ask me again.
MAINE: (MAINE finds the words hard to say) Why ain’t I dead?
POLUNSKY: You’re s’posed to be. Word’s goin’ round that someone paid someone to botch that Marcus’ kid’s execution. He’s probably innocent, and he’s only being pushed through to make his uncle look like shit. But someone’s botched the botchin’. You’re alive, and now Marcus is gonna fry, cause there’s no way two executions in a row are gonna be skipped. So you get an extra couple o’ months. (Beat) It was just a screw-up. And hey, maybe the screw-up was some kinda intervention meant to save you, but it sure as heck ain’t saved that kid. And... well, you’ve got your own date again now. Ain’t done you much good either.
(POLUNSKY waits for MAINE to react. MAINE looks devoid of purpose. POLUNSKY sighs after a long while.)
POLUNSKY: C’mon. Back to your cell. Time’s up.
(Lights down as MAINE and POLUNSKY exit.)
(A projection appears on the wall of the interrogation room. It is of MAINE’S old cell. MARCUS is on his hands and knees scratching at the wall. GUARD arrives to escort MARCUS. He handcuffs him and the two exit solemnly. ‘DEAD MAN WALKING’ chant starts again as he leaves, fades away. Projection ends.)
(Lights up. MAINE has returned to his cell in Building 12. He sits on the toilet while FATHER THESSING lights up a cigarette on the bed. It is the date of MAINE’s execution. He seems very tired again.)
THESSING: Well son, I ain’t ever had to give my last sermon to the same guy twice.
MAINE: I enjoyed it so much the firs’ time, I thought I should come back.
THESSING: Heck, you never listened to a word I said. (He takes a long drag) What’s your last request this time then?
MAINE: A bet.
MAINE: I bet that I can survive your sermon.
THESSING: Oh? Interested all of a sudden? Which bit did you like, the bit ‘bout burnin’ for eternity or that circle of Hell where all the whores live?
MAINE: I don’t care for any of that. But... s’nice you do. You got a strong belief that God’s up to somethin’.
THESSING: Alright, s’long as you stay quiet through it. (He reaches for his Bible. Lights down.)
(Lights up. THESSING has completed his sermon and is preparing to leave.)
THESSING: (Pulling his jacket on) Anythin’ else I can do for you ‘fore I go?
MAINE: Jus’ one thing. Can you read me somethin’?
THESSING: You got more letters from your lovin’ public askin’ you to hurry up and die? I don’t think you should be goin’ through hate mail before you go. Gotta keep yer chin up.
MAINE: It ain’t that. (He stands and pulls the bed to one side. MAINE struggles with the simple task. He moves slowly, and he kneels down to examine the wall at a very gentle pace.) This.
THESSING: (Kneels down next to him and pulls out his glasses) How long ago’s this from?
MAINE: S’new, wasn’t here last time I was. What’s it say?
THESSING: Faith, son. That’s all it says. Just faith. In the next life then. You’ll be expected, I’m sure.
MAINE: Thank you.
(THESSING leaves. POLUNSKY opens the door to let him out, and nods to MAINE as he does so.)
POLUNSKY: Two minutes.
(He shuts the door. MAINE sits on the floor, beside the writing. He is not at all as still as he was during the beginning. Beat.)
MAINE: Faith... Didn’t take you two lives to figure that out. Sorry, Marcus. (Beat) Y’know what, I still think Polunsky and that reporter are wrong. That’s probably stupid. Hell, this whole thing’s been stupid. But pointless? I been thinkin’. See, this coulda happened to anyone. Why’d it happen to the one guy in this whole joint who probably wanted to sit in that chair? Cause... cause I shouldn’t have wanted it. And I don’t now. I don’t wanna die, not when I finally felt...
(He starts to cry softly.)
MAINE: I didn’t care ‘bout her dyin’, Marcus. When I killed her. Part of me thought that was right, back then. Even if I was out there I would’ve just been waitin’ for death anyway. Had no way, no point. But I sure don’t feel right that you died. And I had nothin’ to do with that. But that chair broke and... Well.
Polunsky wanted me to feel nothin’. It took me awhile to get it. I never really understood people. It took me a couple of weeks, but I think I get it. He thought I was better off when I was ready to die. S’kind of him. He sure does remind me of this place. Kind, but not right. Dyin’ without feelin’ bad about it was probably all I had left. Well, that’s what he thought anyway. I ain’t mad at him.
(Noise outside and footsteps coming towards door. MAINE pulls himself up slowly.)
It was nice to feel special.
(The door opens.)