“I want to be a lifeguard, like my father.” The teacher said that was my son’s answer when she asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. She then sat across from me, investigating my coarse appearance with contempt, looking rather appalled.
“I understand the complexity of the situation, but it’s about time he knew. You know you should do something to reduce the shock by then.”
“Well, you know my job is kind of sensitive, and kids tend to have big mouths.” I replied coldly.
“But, a lifeguard? Your son thinks of you as a superhero!”
“Well, I wouldn’t put it that way…”
“Let me ask you something,” She interrupted. “Are you satisfied with what you do?”
I could clearly see the reason behind her question, what I couldn’t see was the answer she was expecting. Are you satisfied with what you do? A perfectly normal question, if asked to a baker or a blacksmith, not a hangman. You don’t ask a hangman if he’s satisfied with his job. If you must, ask him how he feels when he takes the life of someone he believes to be innocent the same way he takes that of a serial killer, or how he grows nauseated each time someone drops through that trap door and turns into a lifeless body swinging in the wind, all in the matter of minutes.
“Excuse me” The teacher’s voice brought me back to reality. “Are you satisfied with your job?”
“Well, I’m just another human being.”
She forced a heavy smile and said nothing, perhaps wondering what my answer had to do with anything, or even trying to draw a mental image of the Angel of Death, while I assured her it wasn’t me.
My daily encounter with death cast its shadow on every detail of my life. My relationship with my wife, kids, people and even with myself. I could not look into the mirror without feeling a strong urge to spit, which made me excuse the sideway glances I get from others all the time. I could feel the stiffness of my wife’s body whenever I touched her, the rigidness of her skin, the tightening of her voice. I knew that with every passing day we drew further apart. Sometimes I think the only reason she didn’t leave me when I started my new job was that our son had just been born. It was the only work I could find and I promised her it wouldn’t be for long, but soon enough it became even harder to find a new job with my work history.
My son would always ask me to tell him some of my life-saving stories, and I would ramble on and on about how I saved those little school kids when their boat sank a few miles off shore. I enjoyed telling those stories and nearly believed them myself, except that deep inside, a huge wave of disgust tore into my gut.
Very few people in the neighborhood knew what my job really was. Curiously enough, Zaki the garbage man was one of them. He had a dark complexion, a pair of coarse hands, caked with dust and dirt. I always looked down on him, but deep inside I was green with envy; because I knew that as soon as he got home, he got rid of all that dirt with a simple shower, something I’ve been trying to do for many years but to no avail.
“And I thought I had the worst job in the world!” Said Zaki once, with a small chuckle. “Dealing with all that rubbish every day. But, you know what? When I come home to my wife and kids, I feel like the cleanest person on earth.”
I gave him a sarcastic remark, a skill I acquired through years of experience with the ironic contrast between life and death. He gave me a brief look that I suspected to be one of empathy and said: “You may joke about it, but I’m telling you: that job redeems me. And they call me a garbage man! Why should I be labeled with garbage when all I do is to collect your rubbish? Then, all of a sudden, you are disgusted of shaking hands with me!”
Ironically, the disgust I felt with myself that moment left no room to be disgusted with Zaki anymore. I only wished that, somehow, Zaki would be up on the gallows the very next morning, waiting for me to tie the rope around his neck and see him swinging like a rubber dummy.
A sudden call shook off all those memories at once, and I was back again at the hanging room, waiting for my next prey. All those years gave me an extraordinary talent of knowing who’s innocent and who’s guilty by looking into their eyes. Both had their eyes full of fear, but the innocent ones had it mixed with bitterness. The guilty, with regret. Two huge guards came through the doorway, dragging a shackled man who didn’t show any resistance. I was wearing a black hood that had slits for my eyes, something that has always added to my sense of villainy. I was also carrying another hood for the convict, but that one had no slits whatsoever, something I never understood the wisdom of.
The three of them approached the gallows in firm steps, the huge men looking fairly normal doing such a routine task. The dead-man-walking looked no less normal than they were. There was a strange calm surrounding him, so intense that it gave me the shivers. For some reason I didn’t know, I wanted to snatch the hood off my head and run… just run without thinking whereto. But the next thing I knew, the man was all but set up on the gallows to face his eminent death. All that was left for me was to wrap his head with the black hood, then, show time.
He was tall and skinny, old enough to be my father. The wrinkles on his forehead looked like cracks in a worn-out rock. He had a long, white, well-trimmed beard, and possessed a certain poise that made me think that he could never have committed a crime that made him deserve to bite the dust.
Reluctantly, I held the hood above his head to shut him out, wondering what good it would do. The man eyes were silently following my movements, till he blurted out all of a sudden…
“You know I don’t need this! You are doing it so you won’t have to see my face.”
He paused for a moment, as if waiting for me to absorb the idea, then sighed and turned his face away. “Go on, spare yourself some nightmares.”
The officer in charge yelled at me to continue with the procedures, and without blinking, I blocked out all the thoughts burning in my mind, putting the hood into place hastily, making sure he wouldn’t get another glimpse of this life.
The hanging went perfectly normal. We heard the choking sound tearing out of his throat as he recited the Declaration of Faith – which he wasn’t given enough time to finish- and watched as he swung by the neck, back and forth in the chilly wind.
Loaded with all what I had previously blocked out, I walked slowly out of the hanging room, for the urge I had to run had faded away. And as I do after every hanging, I went to the clerk to get my wages, feeling all the humiliation in the world eating away at me.
“Good one, tiger!” said the clerk jokingly. I gave him my back and walked away, without the slightest response.
As I walked home, everything seemed normal, nothing seemed to have been changed, the sun hasn’t frozen and the earth hasn’t stopped turning around. Only I was changed forever. I kept walking along the river, observing the people humming around, wondering what could be their biggest concerns. I stopped at some point, looking at the ripples on the silver sheet of the river. I fished for the blood-soaked money in my pocket, looked at it with disgust and then looked again at the water. For a moment, I thought if redemption ever materialized, it would most probably be a river. I smiled at the thought, and without thinking any further, sent the coins sinking into the water, throwing them as far as I could… a life wasted for free.