Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Henry Williams

Danny Johnson

I was born during a hurricane in 1955. My life began in wildness and pretty much never changed.  My name is Henry Williams.  My prisoner number is 50782056, and in two days time the State of North Carolina is going to kill me.  They said I murdered another man, and it's true.  Do I regret it?  Not for a second.  Will I regret it when they strap me down and stick the needle in my arm?  Maybe.  I am not tired of living yet, but I am tired of living like this.  After fifteen years on death row, I finally told the nice young lawyer kids to stop.  If I could not live free, then let it go.  The preacher came by most every day and I told him not to waste his time anymore either.  If I am going to meet my maker, then I will go alone, just like I have done everything else in my life.

I have no fear yet of heaven or hell.  Am I afraid of dying?  Yes, some.  What I am afraid of is when I close my eyes there will be nothing, no heaven, no hell, just darkness.  I guess I am about to find out who was full of crap here on this Earth: the preachers begging for your money, the Pope, the Islamist, the Dalai Lama.  I will let you know if I can. 

Momma told me that the night I came into the world we lived in an old pack house that had been converted to a two-room shack in the backwoods, and that she thought for sure it was going to be lifted up and sent sailing to the hereafter.  She said the wind was so bad the black mid-wife down the road would not come out, scared she would be hell-bound before her time.  So, Momma just squatted on the floor and pushed me out.  Daddy cut the cord with his pocketknife, neither one having much hope I would live out the night.  But I did.

I have decided to try to stay awake for the next forty-eight hours, just in case the Lord decides to visit me.  What would I say to Him?  Maybe he would have a movie of my life and play it back.  I hope not. There really was not much to see the first time.  This cell stinks of dread and fright.  I can smell all the others who have been where I am, slept in this bed, and paced this floor for hours on end.  Sometimes I see their shadows, still left here looking for their owners. 

They asked what I wanted for my last meal.  I told them a good piece of fried chicken, cornbread, slaw, cream potatoes, and a tall glass of sweet tea, all made by my momma.  They unnecessarily reminded me she was dead.  I told them it was okay, we could wait for the resurrection.  The guard thought that was funny.

I have lived in a cell not far from this one and watched and heard others go from death row to the death house.  We all yelled goodbye to each one, and some laughed, some cussed, and some cried.  When it came time for the execution, the cellblock would get quiet, waiting to see if a miracle would happen and they would bring him back.  It has only happened once in my fifteen years.  They came for him again two weeks later and killed him.  If that is not cruel I do not know what is.  Once they put me on the table, I do not want them to stop until I am dead.  One day is as good as another to die. 

Other than the folks who have to, I have not had a visitor in five years.  My momma and daddy are both dead.  Mrs. James, the lady who took us in when we first came to Durham would visit until she had a stroke and was not able. 

My momma was a high-yellow mixed breed and my daddy was a sorry white man.  They worked themselves to the bone just to keep some food in the house and clothes on our back, though most of the rags we got were what other folks threw out.  It was a hard life. 

When I got to be around twelve, daddy got to drinking bad.  He was making moonshine out in the woods next to the creek, some he sold and some he kept for himself.  The money he got for selling mostly went back into buying stuff he needed to run the still.  The law caught up to him one day and the judge gave him a year of hard labor.  He laughed when the judge said hard labor.  Heck, he had never done anything else. 

My momma took to whoring while he was gone.  She had to make money somehow and it was the only skill she had.  I never felt hard towards her, making me sleep out in the barn about every Friday and Saturday night, because she would find a way to reward me with some do-dad, or, once in a while, a pair of shoes.  I would sit in the dark and listen to men coming and going, laughing, drinking, and my momma giving them a good bounce on the bed.  Sometimes I felt like taking my buck knife and robbing or killing one of them, but I never did. 

When my daddy got out of prison, he found out what Momma had been doing and beat her near to death.  When he could not get enough money to buy liquor, he started renting her out his self.  Finally, he could not take it no more, so he went out in the woods, threw a rope over a tree and hung there until somebody come across him.  By then he was pretty well rotted.

We walked the twenty miles to Durham.  Across the tracks in a place called Hayti, Momma found a woman who ran a cathouse and would take us in.  She would work every night and I would wander the streets.  Being a half-breed did not make me belong to one side or the other, but black folks seemed to have more sympathy than whites.  I learned how to shoot craps, steal from stores, and fight like a wild man.  I never took mess from any person, black or white. 

Sometimes I would go to school, but most times I skipped.  It was more fun to be on the streets, especially on the weekend.  The corners were full of men and women laughing and drinking and the bars stayed open all night.  I got to be known by folks as a kid who could be trusted to do what he said, so I made a fair amount of money running errands for crooks, picking up numbers slips, delivering dope and collecting the money, anything anybody needed doing.  I got my first gun at sixteen, one of the drug dealers saying I needed something to protect myself.  I did not think I did, but I carried it just in case. 

When I was seventeen, the police caught me with a pocket full of money and the gun.  They stole the money, and then arrested me for carrying the gun.  I went before the judge and he gave me the choice between going to jail and going in the Marines.  I took the Marines and ended up doing four years.  The war was about over and I spent most of my time riding around on ships and attacking sand beaches from California to some islands out in the ocean.  I never did like it much, but the eating was good and there were always plenty of whores around. 

When I got discharged, I headed right back to Durham and Hayti.  This time I did not run errands for anybody.  I found a guy running dope on one of the blocks, beat him with a ball bat until his blood made pools on the ground and most of his bones were broke, and then took over the block.  If anybody fooled with me, I had no mercy.  My momma died from some disease, probably from her whoring, but she lived her last days in a decent bed in a room to herself.  I saw to that. 

Life was actually going along pretty good for me, I had plenty of money and women sucked up to me like bees to honey.  I drove a big Cadillac and most folks either respected me or feared me.  I pretty much lived like I wanted to.  Then, along came the gang bangers, wearing red, carrying guns and would shoot a man at the drop of a hat.  They wanted to take over the drug sales in Hayti, and you either joined up with them or they would kill you, just that simple.  I decided I did not want any partners.  Three of them came for me one night.  What they did not know is that I knew they were coming. 

I waited for them in the middle of some bushes on the side of my house.  I watched them roll by twice before they stopped in front.  They went up on the porch and sneaked around, trying to see in the windows.  After they tiptoed back to their car, they came back with guns.  When they kicked in the front door, I came out from my hiding place, armed with a twelve-gage pump loaded with eight rounds.  They were so busy searching the house they never heard me until it was too late.  I hit the first one in the back of the head with double-ought buckshot, and brains and skull flew all over the walls.  Another one came out of the back bedroom, throwing bullets all over the place.  I got excited and aimed a little high, catching him straight in the throat.  The only thing holding his head on was skin. 

The last one was shooting wild and it forced me on the floor to dodge him. He managed to get out the front door.  That was when I did what I should not have done.  I took off after him.  He had a good head start, but when he cut the corner up at the streetlight I could see him.  I crossed backyards, figuring about where he would come out, and laid in the grass.  Sure enough, he came right to me.  I jumped up and put one in his midsection, then shot him two more times in the head to leave a message for his friends.

When the police came, they said if I had just killed the two inside and not chased the man down, it would be self-defense.  As it was, though, it was murder. 

In them days, a black man did not stand a chance in a Southern court.  Because I was an albino, I had even less of one.  Now, I sit here on death row, waiting for them to kill me.  Do I deserve it?  You decide.  They brought me a good supper, and despite me wanting to stay awake, I could not.  When the guards came to get me for the walk to the death house, I did struggle some to keep strength in my legs.  When they strapped me down, I trembled.  I glared at everyone, daring them to look me in the eye while they killed me.  None would.  A warmth and peace began to flood over me.  I decided I would say goodbye after all.  I want you all to know, I started, but then came the light.


Danny Johnson is the author of "Harry and Bo And Other Stories From A Rambling Mind" published by Milspeak Books, "The American Dream" published by The Legendary, and 2 print novels placed with a literary agent for marketing to publishers.  Danny lives in Durham, NC and is a USAF Vietnam Vet and recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross.

© Danny Johnson

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012