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The Transience of Permanence

Death Mask                

        For the first time in my life I fully understood the term “death mask”. The handmade noose around his neck consisted of sloppily braided strips of sheet, and his head was bent at an impossible angle in relation to his shoulders. Evidently, he had been hanging for a while because rigor mortis had set in. He must have changed his mind about his final life decision that night because both hands were at his neck, as though he tried to undo the fix he found himself in while the last vestige of his consciousness ebbed into eternity. His attempts to ease what must have been the ever-tightening grip on his throat had obviously failed, but had caused his fingers to get trapped between the makeshift rope and his neck. Both elbows stuck out rigidly locked in place and told the story of the losing battle that played out during the last moments of his life. His eyes were half open, and mouth curled back in a horrible grimace—the “death mask.”

        It was as quiet in that huge cellblock as it ever was. You could almost hear the mice scampering across the cold concrete floors. Usually there were various types of yelling at all hours around the clock; conversations between cells on different tiers, chess games hollered back and forth between cells with moves called out on numbered squares. But not at this moment; there was only solemn silence. Even the crazy guys had shut up. For the first time since I was there, I could actually hear the footsteps of the two old cops echoing through the cavernous cellblock as one of them, carrying the now light Stokes stretcher, hung it back up on the wall. With a bit of a dramatic flair, he turned towards the convicts in their cells. It was as though he was on stage facing a giant vertical amphitheater, San Quentin’s version of the Hollywood Bowl. He had everyone’s complete attention. It was so still; the proverbial dropped pin would have sounded like a gunshot going off. Was he going to say a few kind words about the recently deceased? Maybe warn us about the dangers of unchecked depression? A short lecture, perhaps, to be careful lest one of us ever lands the lead role in this tragedy?

        The old bull, who obviously relished his time in the spotlight and milked the silence as well as any award-winning Broadway actor, stood there for several seconds slowly scanning the tiers that held his rapt audience. Then, before he walked away laughing with his buddy, just one word bellowed out of his mouth, loud enough for the inhabitants of all 250 cells to hear, “Next!”

Mike Rothwell
Ione, CA

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