Bill Dodge and his men were moving boxes and stacks of sheets, even the beds; the whole infirmary was going to a new frame building over on the west side of the prison. Hot work, heavy lifting. Percy Wetmore wanted no part of either.
"They got all the men they need," he said.
"Then get over there and straw-boss," I said, raising my voice.
I saw Harry wince and paid no attention. If the governor ordered Warden Moores to fire me for ruffling the wrong set of feathers, who was Hal Moores going to put in my place? Percy? It was a joke.
"I really don't care what you do, Percy, as long as you get out of here for awhile!'
For a moment I thought he was going to stick and there'd be real trouble, with Coffey standing there the whole time like the world's biggest stopped clock. Then Percy rammed his billy back into its hand-tooled holster-foolish damned vanitorious thing - and went stalking up the corridor. I don't remember which guard was sitting at the duty desk that day-one of the floaters, I guess - but Percy must not have liked the way he looked, because he growled, "You wipe that smirk off your shitepoke face or I'll wipe it off for you" as he went by. There was a rattle of keys, a momentary blast of hot sunlight from the exercise yard, and then Percy Wetmore was gone, at least for the time being.
Delacroix's mouse ran back and forth from one of the little Frenchman's shoulders to the other, his filament whiskers twitching.
"Be still, Mr. Jingles," Delacroix said, and the mouse stopped on his left shoulder just as if he had understood. "Just be so still and so quiet." In Delacroix's lilting Cajun accent, quiet came out sounding exotic and foreign - kwaht.
"You go lie down, Del," I said curtly. "Take you a rest. This is none of your business, either!'
He did as I said.
He had raped a young girl and killed her, and had then dropped her body behind the apartment house where she lived, doused it with coal-oil, and then set it on fire, hoping in some muddled way to dispose of the evidence of his crime. The fire had spread to the building itself, had engulfed it, and six more people had died, two of them children. It was the only crime he had in him, and now he was just a mild-mannered man with a worried face, a bald pate, and long hair straggling over the back of his shirt-collar. He would sit down with Old Sparky in a little while, and Old Sparky would make an end to him ... but whatever it was that had done that awful thing was already gone, and now he lay on his bunk, letting his little companion run squeaking over his hands. In a way, that was the worst; Old Sparky never burned what was inside them, and the drugs they inject them with today don't put it to sleep. It vacates, jumps to someone else, and leaves us to kill husks that aren't really alive anyway.
I turned my attention to the giant.
"If I let Harry take those chains off you, are you going to be nice?"
He nodded. It was like his head-shake: down , up, back to center.
His strange eyes looked at me. There was a kind of peace in them, but not a kind I was sure I could trust. I crooked a finger to Harry, who came in and unlocked the chains. He showed no fear now, even when he knelt between Coffey's tree-trunk legs to unlock the ankle irons, and that eased me some. It was Percy who had made Harry nervous, and I trusted Harry's instincts. I trusted the instincts of all my day-to-day E Block men, except for Percy. I have a little set speech I make to men new on the block, but I hesitated with Coffey, because he seemed so abnormal, and not just in his size.
When Harry stood back (Coffey had remained motionless during the entire unlocking ceremony, as placid as a Percheron), I looked up at my new charge, tapping on the clipboard with my thumb, and said: "Can you talk, big boy?"
"Yes, sir, boss, I can talk," he said.
His voice was a deep and quiet rumble. It made me think of a freshly tuned tractor engine. He had no real Southern drawl-he said I, not Ah-but there was a kind of Southern construction to his speech that I noticed later. As if he was from the South, but not of it. He didn't sound illiterate, but he didn't sound educated. In his speech as in so many other things, he was a mystery. Mostly it was his eyes that troubled me - a kind of peaceful absence in them, as if he were floating far, far away.
"Your name is John Coffey."
"Yes, sir, boss, like the drink only not spelled the same way."
"So you can spell, can you? Read and write?"
"Just my name, boss," said he, serenely.
I sighed, then gave him a short version of my set speech. I'd already decided he wasn't going to be any trouble. In that I was both right and wrong.
"My name is Paul Edgecombe," I said. "I'm the E Block super - the head screw. You want something from me, ask for me by name. If I'm not here, ask this other, man - his name is Harry Terwilliger. Or you ask for Mr. Stanton or Mr. Howell. Do you understand that?"
"Just don't expect to get what you want unless we decide it's what you need - this isn't a hotel. Still with me?"
He nodded again.
"This is a quiet place, big boy - not like the rest of the prison. It's just you and Delacroix over there. You won't work; mostly you'll just sit. Give you a chance to think things over."
Too much time for most of them, but I didn't say that.
"Sometimes we play the radio, if all's in order. You like the radio?"
He nodded, but doubtfully, as if he wasn't sure what the radio was. I later found out that was true, in a way; Coffey knew things when he encountered them again, but in between he forgot. He knew the characters on Our Gal Sunday, but had only the haziest memory of what they'd been up to the last time. "If you behave, you'll eat on time, you'll never see the solitary cell down at the far end, or have to wear one of those canvas coats that buttons up the back. You'll have two hours in the yard afternoons from four until six, except on Saturdays when the rest of the prison population has their flag football games. You'll have your visitors on Sunday afternoons, if you have someone who wants to visit you. Do you, Coffey?"
He shook his head.
"Got none, boss," he said.
'Well, your lawyer, then!'
"I believe I've seen the back end of him," he said. "He was give to me on loan. Don't believe he could find his way up here in the mountains!'
I looked at him closely to see if he might be trying a little joke, but he didn't seem to be. And I really hadn't expected any different. Appeals weren't for the likes of John Coffey, not back then; they had their day in court and then the world forgot them until they saw a squib in the paper saying a certain fellow had taken a little electricity along about midnight. But a man with a wife, children, or friends to look forward to on Sunday afternoons was easier to control, if control looked to be a problem. Here it didn't, and that was good. Because he was so damned big. I shifted a little on the bunk, then decided I might feel a little more comfortable in my nether parts if I stood up, and so I did.
He backed away from me respectfully, and clasped his hands in front of him.
"Your time here can be easy or hard, big boy, it all depends on you. I'm here to say you might as well make it easy on all of us, because it comes to the same in the end. We'll treat you as right as you deserve. Do you have any questions?"
"Do you leave a light on after bedtime?" he asked right away, as if he had only been waiting for the chance.
I blinked at him. I had been asked a lot of strange questions by newcomers to E Block - once about the size of my wife's tits-but never that one. Coffey was smiling a trifle uneasily, as if he knew we would think him foolish but couldn't help himself.
"Because I get a little scared in the dark sometimes," he said. "If it's a strange place."
I looked at him - the pure size of him - and felt strangely touched. They did touch you, you know; you didn't see them at their worst, hammering out their horrors like demons at a forge.
"Yes, it's pretty bright in here all night long," I said. "Half the lights along the Mile burn from nine until five every morning."
Then I realized he wouldn't have any idea of what I was talking about - he didn't know the Green Mile from Mississippi mud - and so I pointed.
"In the corridor." He nodded, relieved.
I'm not sure he knew what a corridor was, either, but he could see the 200-watt bulbs in their wire cages. I did something I'd never done to a prisoner before, then - I offered him my hand. Even now I don't know why. Him asking about the lights, maybe. It made Harry Terwilliger blink, I can tell you that.
About the book:
The Green Mile: those who walk it do not return, because at the end of that walk is the room in which sits Cold Mountain penitentiary's electric chair. Here guards as decent as Paul Edgecombe and as sadistic as Percy Wetmore watch over them. But good or evil, innocent or guilty, none have ever seen the brutal likes of the new prisoner, John Coffey, sentenced to death for raping and murdering two young girls. Is Coffey a devil in human form? Or is he a far, far different kind of being?
A bestseller and an inspiration for the Oscar-nominated film of the same name, The Green Mile is eerie, fabulous, and mesmerizing. A story that haunts not because it is scary, but because it tries to answer all the troubling questions that plague us.
Snippet from The Buried Giant
- Kazuo Ishiguro
Snippet from The Girl on the Train
- Paula Hawkins