I remember the summer of the Carvers’ execution; it was the summer I met Ziggy. Two momentous things happened during those three short months, the first being that I fell in love.
The Carvers were husband and wife. They believed they had a God-given mission to purify American society. At the trial, in his defence against the charge of first degree murder, Jimmy claimed that an angel had appeared to him and told him to rid humanity of the scourge of homosexuality. To accomplish this, he would frequent downtown nightclubs and lure young men back to his fourth floor apartment where Nancy had prepared and left out poisoned wine. Having killed their victims — there was some doubt about how many — they got rid of the bagged bodies in their waste disposal. They were only discovered when one larger than usual victim became wedged in the shute. It was so simple, it’s only a surprise that more people haven’t tried it. Or maybe they have.
The judge sentenced them to death by electrocution. The electric chair. From the moment I heard of the judge’s pronouncement, it obsessed me, filled my brain. What does it feel like, I wondered, to die like that? Is there an instant, just before the power surges through the core of your being, when every nerve ending in your body tingles with unimaginable ecstasy? Or is it all over in a painless flash? These were my thoughts when I met Ziggy.
He took my breath away. Literally and figuratively. New York City was short of air that summer and I was meandering lethargically along the sidewalk, engrossed in the Tribune’s account of the verdict, when he emerged from the subway, jumping the steps two at a time. We collided. His greater momentum meant that I crashed onto the floor. Ziggy stopped, apologised, realised that I was struggling to get up and leant over to help me. I saw myself reflected in his hazel-brown eyes, and I couldn’t look away. It only needed an orchestral crescendo in the background for this to have been a bad Hollywood B-movie, and if I hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have believed it either.
I tried to stand but the pain surprised me with its intensity and I grimaced and leaned against the railing. Ziggy couldn’t apologise enough. He insisted on calling a cab and taking me to the nearest hospital. The doctor declared my ankle, badly sprained but not broken, bound it tightly for me, and told me to ‘rest up’. I thanked Ziggy and assured him I would be fine now, but it wasn’t enough. He was, I was to discover, both a perfect gentleman, and an anglophile. On learning that I was visiting from England and staying in a cheap hotel in the village, he hailed another cab, accompanied me there and waited while I packed my things. He took me back to his penthouse apartment with its postcard-familiar views of the Manhattan skyline and installed me in the guest bedroom.
When at last I was able to walk without needing a stick, Ziggy took it upon himself to show me round his city. He let me see things through his eyes. Things looked very different from that perspective. From the top of the Statue of Liberty we looked out over the same seaway so many immigrants had crossed on their journey to the land of the free. Ziggy made a passionate speech about rights and justice. His eyes glistened as he spoke about the inhumanity of the few and the filth that had polluted the city he loved.
Each evening, we watched the television news, which was full of the Carvers and their forthcoming execution. It was a quiet summer for news, and the big channels vied with each other for increasingly unusual angles. Like every school kid in the city, we knew the exact voltage of the current that would pass through Jimmy and Nancy. There was to be no appeal, or rather the only appeal Jimmy made was that the end should be soon. They had completed their work on earth. Like children waiting for Christmas, they were impatient for their reward.
The sun shone on the day of death. Ziggy drew the blinds in his apartment, and draped the television with a black cloth. Then we sat, side by side on the sofa, and waited. The killing itself wasn’t televised; all we saw were the victims’ relatives, the protesters, the crowds baying for blood, and the priest and the condemned pair walking through the compound to the enclosed death cell. Tension radiated from the screen. Even the air-conditioned apartment felt claustrophobic.
When it was all over, Ziggy raised his glass.
‘They are martyrs,’ he said, his face wet with tears. ‘I salute you, Jimmy and Nancy. America needs more people like you.’
I thought briefly of what could have been, and watched as Ziggy drained the glass of wine I had poured for him. The whole momentous event took only a few minutes.
I left New York that afternoon.
At the airport, the customs officer said, ‘Hope you’ve enjoyed your stay over here, Mr Fielding.’ I formed my lips into a smile for him.