Books

10.26.09

John Grisham's First Short Story: Part Two

Read the conclusion of an exclusive excerpt from John Grisham’s debut collection, Ford County, a heartbreaking tale of one family’s visit to death row.

The conclusion of an exclusive excerpt from John Grisham’s debut collection, Ford County, a heartbreaking tale of one family’s visit to death row.

Click here to read the first half of "Fetching Raymond."

Leon stopped at the guardhouse, which was crawling with prison guards and anxious security personnel. A guard with a clipboard stepped to the driver’s door and said, “Your name?”
      “Graney, family of Mr. Raymond Graney. Leon, Butch, and our mother, Inez.”
      The guard wrote nothing, took a step back, managed to say, “Wait a minute,” then left them. Three guards stood directly in front of the van, at a barricade across the entry road.
      “He’s gone to get Fitch,” Butch said. “Wanna bet?”
      “No,” Leon replied.

Fitch was an assistant warden of some variety, a career prison employee whose dead-end job was brightened only by an escape or an execution. In cowboy boots and fake Stetson, and with a large pistol on his hip, he swaggered around Parchman as if he owned it. Fitch had outlasted a dozen wardens and had survived that many lawsuits. As he approached the van, he said loudly, “Well, well, the Graney boys’re back where they belong. Here for a little furniture repair, boys? We have an old electric chair ya’ll can reupholster.” He laughed at his own humor, and there was more laughter behind him.
      “Evenin’, Mr. Fitch,” Leon said. “We have our mother with us.”
      “Evenin’, ma’am,” Fitch said as he glanced inside the van. Inez did not respond.
      “Where’d you get this van?” Fitch asked.
      “We borrowed it,” Leon answered. Butch stared straight ahead and refused to look at Fitch.
      “Borrowed my ass. When’s the last time you boys borrowed anything? I’m sure Mr. McBride is lookin’ for his van right now. Might give him a call.”
      “You do that, Fitch,” Leon said.
      “It’s Mr. Fitch to you.”
      “Whatever you say.”

ford-county-book-cover
Ford County: Stories. By John Grisham. 320 pages. Doubleday. $24. ()

Fitch unloaded a mouthful of spit. He nodded ahead as if he and he alone controlled the details. “I reckon you boys know where you’re goin’,” he said. “God knows you been here enough. Follow that car back to max security. They’ll do the search there.” He waved at the guards at the barricade. An opening was created, and they left Fitch without another word. For a few minutes, they followed an unmarked car filled with armed men. They passed one unit after another, each entirely separate, each encircled by chain link topped with razor wire. Butch gazed at the unit where he’d surrendered several years of his life. In a well-lit open area, the “playground,” as they called it, he saw the inevitable basketball game with shirtless men drenched in sweat, always one hard foul away from another mindless brawl. He saw the calmer ones sitting on picnic tables, waiting for the 10:00 p.m. bed check, waiting for the heat to break because the barracks air units seldom worked, especially in July.

As usual, Leon glanced at his old unit but did not dwell on his time there. After so many years, he had been able to tuck away the emotional scars of physical abuse. The inmate population was 80 percent black, and Parchman was one of the few places in Mississippi where the whites did not make the rules.

The maximum security unit was a 1950s-style flat-roofed building, one level, redbrick, much like countless elementary schools built back then. It, too, was wrapped in chain link and razor wire and watched by guards lounging in towers, though on this night everyone in uniform was awake and excited. Leon parked where he was directed, then he and Butch were thoroughly searched by a small battalion of unsmiling guards. Inez was lifted out, rolled to a makeshift checkpoint, and carefully inspected by two female guards. They were escorted inside the building, through a series of heavy doors, past more guards, and finally to a small room they had never seen before. The visitors’ room was elsewhere. Two guards stayed with them as they settled in. The room had a sofa, two folding chairs, a row of ancient file cabinets, and the look of an office that belonged to some trifling bureaucrat who’d been chased away for the night.

The two prison guards weighed at least 250 pounds each, had twenty-four-inch necks and the obligatory shaved heads. After five awkward minutes in the room with the family, Butch had had enough. He took a few steps and challenged them with a bold “What, exactly, are you two doing in here?”
      “Following orders,” one said.
      “Whose orders?”
      “The warden’s.”
      “Do you realize how stupid you look? Here we are, the family of the condemned man, waiting to spend a few minutes with our brother, in this tiny shit hole of a room, with no windows, cinder-block walls, only one door, and you’re standing here guarding us as if we’re dangerous. Do you realize how stupid this is?”

Both necks seemed to expand. Both faces turned scarlet. Had Butch been an inmate, he would have been beaten, but he wasn’t. He was a citizen, a former convict who hated every cop, trooper, guard, agent, and security type he’d ever seen. Every man in a uniform was his enemy.
      “Sir, please sit down,” one said coolly.
      “In case you idiots don’t realize it, you can guard this room from the other side of that door just as easily as you can from this side. I swear. It’s true. I know you probably haven’t been trained enough to realize this, but if you just walked through the door and parked your big asses on the other side, then ever’thang would still be secure and we’d have some privacy. We could talk to our little brother without worryin’ about you clowns eavesdroppin’.”
      “You’d better knock it off, pal.”
      “Go ahead, just step through the door, close it, stare at it, guard it. I know you boys can handle it. I know you can keep us safe in here.”

Of course the guards didn’t move, and Butch eventually sat in a folding chair close to his mother. After a thirty-minute wait that seemed to last forever, the warden entered with his entourage and introduced himself. “The execution is still planned for one minute after midnight,” he said officially, as if he were discussing a routine meeting with his staff. “We’ve been told not to expect a last-minute call from the governor’s office.” There was no hint of compassion.
     Inez placed both hands over her face and began crying softly.
     He continued, “The lawyers are busy with all the last-minute stuff they always do, but our lawyers tell us a reprieve is unlikely.”
     Leon and Butch stared at the floor.
     “We relax the rules a little for these events. You’re free to stay in here as long as you like, and we’ll bring in Raymond shortly. I’m sorry it’s come down to this. If I can do anything, just let me know.”
     “Get those two jackasses outta here,” Butch said, pointing to the guards. “We’d like some privacy.”

The warden hesitated, looked around the room, then said, “No problem.” He left and took the guards with him. Fifteen minutes later, the door opened again, and Raymond bounced in with a big smile and went straight for his mother. After a long hug and a few tears, he bear-hugged his brothers and told them things were moving in their favor. They pulled the chairs close to the sofa and sat in a small huddle, with Raymond clutching his mother’s hands.
      “We got these sumbitches on the run,” he said, still smiling, the picture of confidence. “My lawyers are filin’ a truckload of habeas corpus petitions as we speak, and they’re quite certain the U.S. Supreme Court will grant certiorari within the hour.”
      “What does that mean?” Inez asked.
      “Means the Supreme Court will agree to hear the case, and it’s an automatic delay. Means we’ll probably get a new trial in Ford County, though I’m not sure I want it there.”

He was wearing prison whites, no socks, and a pair of cheap rubber sandals. And it was clear that Raymond was packing on the pounds. His cheeks were round and puffy. A spare tire hung over his belt. They had not seen him in almost six weeks, and his weight gain was noticeable. As usual, he prattled on about matters they did not understand and did not believe, at least as far as Butch and Leon were concerned. Raymond had been born with a vivid imagination, a quick tongue, and an innate inability to tell the truth.
      The boy could lie.
      “Got two dozen lawyers scramblin’ right now,” he said “State can’t keep up with ‘em.”
      “When do you hear somethin’ from the court?” Inez asked.
      “Any minute now. I got federal judges in Jackson, in New Orleans, and in Washington sittin’ by, just ready to kick the state’s ass.”

After eleven years of having his ass thoroughly kicked by the state, it was difficult to believe that Raymond had now, at this late hour, managed to turn the tide. Leon and Butch nodded gravely, as if they bought this and believed that the inevitable was not about to happen. They had known for many years that their little brother had ambushed Coy and practically blown his head off with a stolen rifle. Raymond had told Butch years earlier, long after he’d landed on death row, that he’d been so stoned he could hardly remember the killing.

“Plus we got some big-shot lawyers in Jackson puttin’ pressure on the governor, just in case the Supreme Court chickens out again,” he said.
      All three nodded, but no one mentioned the comments from the warden.
      “You got my last letter, Momma? The one about the new lawyer?”
      “Sure did. Read it drivin’ over here,” she said, nodding.
      “I’d like to hire him as soon as we get an order for the new trial. He’s from Mobile, and he is one bad boy, lemme tell you. But we can talk about him later.”
      “Sure, son.”
      “Thank you. Look, Momma, I know this is hard, but you gotta have faith in me and my lawyers. I been runnin’ my own defense for a year now, bossin’ the lawyers around ’cause that’s what you gotta do these days, and thangs’re gonna work out, Momma. Trust me.”
      “I do, I do.”

Raymond jumped to his feet and thrust his arms high above, stretching with his eyes closed. “I’m into yoga now, did I tell ya’ll about it?”
      All three nodded. His letters had been loaded with the details of his latest fascination. Over the years the family had suffered through Raymond’s breathless accounts of his conversion to Buddhism, then Islam, then Hinduism, and his discoveries of meditation, kung fu, aerobics, weight lifting, fasting, and of course his quest to become a poet, novelist, singer, and musician. Little had been spared in his letters home.
      Whatever the current passion, it was obvious that the fasting and aerobics had been abandoned. Raymond was so fat his britches strained in the seat.
      “Did you bring the brownies?” he asked his mother. He loved her pecan brownies.
      “No, honey, I’m sorry. I’ve been so tore up over this.”
      “You always bring the brownies.”
      “I’m sorry.”
      Just like Raymond. Berating his mother over nothing just hours before his final walk.
      “Well, don’t forget them again.”
      “I won’t, honey.”
      “And another thang. Tallulah is supposed to be here any minute. She’d love to meet ya’ll because ya’ll have always rejected her. She’s part of the family regardless of what ya’ll thank. As a favor at this unfortunate moment in my life, I ask that ya’ll accept her and be nice.”

Leon and Butch could not respond, but Inez managed to say, “Yes, dear.”
      “When I get outta this damned place, we’re movin’ to Hawaii and havin’ ten kids. No way I’m stayin’ in Mississippi, not after all this. So she’ll be part of the family from now on.”
      For the first time Leon glanced at his watch with the thought that relief was just over two hours away. Butch was thinking too, but his thoughts were far different. The idea of choking Raymond to death before the state could kill him posed an interesting dilemma.

Raymond suddenly stood and said, “Well, look, I gotta go meet with the lawyers. I’ll be back in half an hour.” He walked to the door, opened it, then thrust out his arms for the handcuffs.The door closed, and Inez said, “I guess thangs’re okay.”

“Look, Momma, we’d best listen to the warden,” Leon said.
      “Raymond’s kiddin’ himself,” Butch added. She started crying again.
      The chaplain was a Catholic priest, Father Leland, and he quietly introduced himself to the family. They asked him to have a seat.
      “I’m deeply sorry about this,” he said somberly. “It’s the worst part of my job.”
      Catholics were rare in Ford County, and the Graneys certainly didn’t know any. They looked suspiciously at the white collar around his neck.
      “I’ve tried to talk to Raymond,” Father Leland continued. “But he has little interest in the Christian faith. Said he hadn’t been to church since he was a little boy.”
      “I shoulda took him more,” Inez said, lamenting.
      “In fact, he claims to be an atheist.”
      “Lord, Lord.”

Of course, the three Graneys had known for some time that Raymond had renounced all religious beliefs and had proclaimed that there was no God. This, too, they had read about in excruciating detail in his lengthy letters.
      “We’re not church people,” Leon admitted.
      “I’ll be praying for you.”
     “Raymond stole the deputy’s wife’s new car outta the church parking lot,” Butch said. “Did he tell you that?”
      “No. We’ve talked a lot lately, and he’s told me many stories. But not that one.”
      “Thank you, sir, for bein’ so nice to Raymond,” Inez said.
      “I’ll be with him until the end.”
      “So, they’re really gonna do it?” she asked.
      “It’ll take a miracle to stop things now.”
      “Lord, help us,” she said.

“Let’s pray,” Father Leland said. He closed his eyes, folded his hands together, and began: “Dear Heavenly Father, please look down upon us at this hour and let your Holy Spirit enter this place and give us peace. Give strength and wisdom to the lawyers and judges who are laboring diligently at this moment. Give courage to Raymond as he makes his preparations.” Father Leland paused for a second and barely opened his left eye. All three Graneys were staring at him as if he had two heads. Rattled, he closed his eye and wrapped things up quickly with: “And, Father, grant grace and forgiveness to the officials and the people of Mississippi, for they know not what they’re doing. Amen.”

He said good-bye, and they waited a few minutes before Raymond returned. He had his guitar, and as soon as he settled into the sofa he strummed a few chords. He closed his eyes and began to hum, then he sang:

I got the key to the highway,
and I’m billed out and bound to go
I’m gonna leave here runnin’,
’cause walkin’ is most too slow.

”It’s an old tune by Big Bill Broonzy,” he explained. “One of my favorites.”
I’m goin’ down to the border,
now where I’m better known
’Cause woman you don’t do nothin’,
but drive a good man way from home.

The song was unlike any they’d heard before. Butch had once picked the banjo in a bluegrass band, but had given up music many years earlier. He had no voice whatsoever, a family trait shared by his younger brother. Raymond crooned in a painful guttural lurch, an affected attempt to sound like a black blues singer, apparently one in severe distress.

Now when the moon creeps over the mountain,
I’ll be on my way
Now I’m gonna walk this old highway,
until the break of day.

When the words stopped, he kept strumming and did a passable job of playing a tune. Butch, though, couldn’t help but think that after eleven years of practice in his cell, his guitar playing was rudimentary.
      “That’s so nice,” Inez said.
      “Thanks, Momma. Here’s one from Robert Johnson, probably the greatest of all. He’s from Hazlehurst, you know?” They did not know. Like most white hill folks, they knew nothing about the blues and cared even less.
      Raymond’s face contorted again. He hit the strings harder.
      I went to the crossroad,
      Fell down on my knees
      I went to the crossroad,
      Fell down on my knees
      Asked the Lord above, “Have mercy now,
      Save poor Ray if you please.”

Leon glanced at his watch. It was almost 11:00 p.m., just over an hour to go. He wasn’t sure he could listen to the blues for another hour, but resigned himself. The singing unnerved Butch as well, but he managed to sit still with his eyes closed, as if soothed by the words and music.

Standin’ at the crossroad,
Tried to flag a ride Whee-hee,
I tried to flag a ride
Didn’t nobody seem to know me, babe
Everybody pass me by.

Raymond then forgot the words, but continued with his humming. When he finally stopped, he sat with his eyes closed for a minute or so, as if the music had transported him to another world, to a much more pleasant place.
      “What time is it, bro?” he asked Leon.
      “Eleven straight up.”
      “I gotta go check with the lawyers. They’re expectin’ a ruling right about now.”

He placed his guitar in a corner, then knocked on the door and stepped through it. The guards handcuffed him and led him away. Within minutes a crew from the kitchen arrived with armed escort. Hurriedly, they unfolded a square card table and covered it with a rather large amount of food. The smells were immediately thick in the room, and Leon and Butch were weak with hunger. They had not eaten since noon. Inez was too distraught to think about food, though she did examine the spread. Fried catfish, French-fried potatoes, hush puppies, coleslaw, all in the center of the table. To the right was a mammoth cheeseburger, with another order of fries and one of onion rings. To the left was a medium-size pizza with pepperoni and hot, bubbling cheese. Directly in front of the catfish was a huge slice of what appeared to be lemon pie, and next to it was a dessert plate covered with chocolate cake. A bowl of vanilla ice cream was wedged along the edge of the table.
      As the three Graneys gawked at the food, one of the guards said, “For the last meal, he gets anything he wants.”
      “Lord, Lord,” Inez said and began crying again.
      When they were alone, Butch and Leon tried to ignore the food, which they could almost touch, but the aromas were overwhelming. Catfish battered and fried in corn oil. Fried onion rings. Pepperoni. The air in the small room was thick with the competing yet delicious smells.
      The feast could easily accommodate four people.

At 11:15, Raymond made a noisy entry. He was griping at the guards and complaining incoherently about his lawyers. When he saw the food, he forgot about his problems and his family and took the only seat at the table. Using primarily his fingers, he crammed in a few loads of fries and onion rings and began talking. “Fifth Circuit just turned us down, the idiots. Our habeas petition was beautiful, wrote it myself. We’re on the way to Washington, to the Supreme Court. Got a whole law firm up there ready to attack. Thangs look good.” He managed to deftly shove food into his mouth, and chew it, while talking. Inez stared at her feet and wiped tears. Butch and Leon appeared to listen patiently while studying the tiled floor.
      “Ya’ll seen Tallulah?” Raymond asked, still chomping after a gulp of iced tea.
      “No,” Leon said.
      “Bitch. She just wants the book rights to my life story. That’s all. But it ain’t gonna happen. I’m leavin’ all literary rights with the three of ya’ll. What about that?”
      “Nice,” said Leon.
      “Great,” said Butch.

The final chapter of his life was now close at hand. Raymond had already written his autobiography—two hundred pages—and it had been rejected by every publisher in America.
     He chomped away, wreaking havoc with the catfish, burger, and pizza in no particular order. His fork and fingers moved around the table, often headed in different directions, poking, stabbing, grabbing, and shoveling food into his mouth as fast as he could swallow it. A starving hog at a trough would have made less noise. Inez had never spent much time with table manners, and her boys had learned all the bad habits. But eleven years on death row had taken Raymond to new depths of crude behavior.
     Leon’s third wife, though, had been properly raised. He snapped ten minutes into the last meal. “Do you have to smack like that?” he barked.
     “Damn, son, you’re makin’ more noise than a horse eatin’ corn,” Butch piled on instantly.

Raymond froze, glared at both of his brothers, and for a few long tense seconds the situation could’ve gone either way. It could’ve erupted into a classic Graney brawl with lots of cursing and personal insults. Over the years, there had been several ugly spats in the visitors’ room at death row, all painful, all memorable. But Raymond, to his credit, took a softer approach.
      “It’s my last meal,” he said. “And my own family’s bitchin’ at me.”
      “I’m not,” Inez said.
      “Thank you, Momma.”
      Leon held his hands wide in surrender and said, “I’m sorry. We’re all a little tense.”
      “Tense?” Raymond said. “You think you’re tense?”
      “I’m sorry, Ray.”
      “Me too,” Butch said, but only because it was expected.
      “You want a hush puppy?” Ray said, offering one to Butch.

A few minutes earlier the last meal had been an irresistible feast. Now, though, after Raymond’s frenzied assault, the table was in ruins. In spite of this, Butch was craving some fries and a hush puppy, but he declined. There was something eerily wrong with nibbling off the edges of a man’s last meal. “No, thanks,” he said.
      After catching his breath, Raymond plowed ahead, albeit at a slower and quieter pace. He finished off the lemon pie and chocolate cake, with ice cream, belched, and laughed about it, then said, “Ain’t my last meal, I can promise you that.”

There was a knock on the door, and a guard stepped in and said, “Mr. Tanner would like to see you.”
      “Send him in,” Raymond said. “My chief lawyer,” he announced proudly to his family.
      Mr. Tanner was a slight, balding young man in a faded navy jacket, old khakis, and even older tennis shoes. He wore no tie. He carried a thick stack of papers. His face was gaunt and pale, and he looked as if he needed a long rest. Raymond quickly introduced him to his family, but Mr. Tanner showed no interest in meeting new people at that moment.
      “The Supreme Court just turned us down,” he announced gravely to Raymond.
      Raymond swallowed hard, and the room was silent.
      “What about the governor?” Leon asked. “And all those lawyers down there talkin’ to him?”
      Tanner shot a blank look at Raymond, who said, “I fired them.”
      “What about all those lawyers in Washington?” Butch asked.
      “I fired them too.”
      “What about that big firm from Chicago?” Leon asked.
      “I fired them too.”
      Tanner looked back and forth among the Graneys.
      “Seems like a bad time to be firin’ your lawyers,” Leon said.
      “What lawyers?” Tanner asked. “I’m the only lawyer working on this case.”
      “You’re fired too,” Raymond said, and violently slapped his glass of tea off the card table, sending ice and liquid splashing against a wall. “Go ahead and kill me!” he screamed. “I don’t care anymore.”

“No one breathed for a few seconds, then the door opened suddenly and the warden was back, with his entourage. “It’s time, Raymond,” he said, somewhat impatiently. “The appeals are over, and the governor’s gone to bed.”
      There was a long heavy pause as the finality sank in. Inez was crying. Leon was staring blankly at the wall where the tea and ice were sliding to the floor. Butch was looking forlornly at the last two hush puppies. Tanner appeared ready to faint.
      Raymond cleared his throat and said, “I’d like to see that Catholic guy. We need to pray.”
      “I’ll get him,” the warden said. “You can have one last moment with your family, then it’s time to go.”
      The warden left with his assistants. Tanner quickly followed them.

Raymond’s shoulders slumped, and his face was pale. All defiance and bravado vanished. He walked slowly to his mother, fell to his knees in front of her, and put his head in her lap. She rubbed it, wiped her eyes, and kept saying, “Lord, Lord.”
      “I’m so sorry, Momma,” Raymond mumbled. “I’m so sorry.”
      “They cried together for a moment while Leon and Butch stood silently by. Father Leland entered the room, and Raymond slowly stood. His eyes were wet and red, and his voice was soft and weak. “I guess it’s over,” he said to the priest, who nodded sadly and patted his shoulder. “I’ll be with you in the isolation room, Raymond,” he said. “We’ll have a final prayer, if you wish.”
      “Probably not a bad idea.”

The door opened again, and the warden was back. He addressed the Graneys and Father Leland. “Please listen to me,” he said. “This is my fourth execution, and I’ve learned a few things. One is that it is a bad idea for the mother to witness the execution. I strongly suggest, Mrs. Graney, that you remain here, in this room, for the next hour or so, until it’s over. We have a nurse who will sit with you, and she has a sedative that I recommend. Please.” He looked at Leon and Butch and pleaded with his eyes. Both got the message.
      “I’ll be there till the end,” Inez said, then wailed so loudly that even the warden had a flash of goose bumps.
      Butch stepped next to her and stroked her shoulder.
      “You need to stay here, Momma,” Leon said. Inez wailed again.
      “She’ll stay,” Leon said to the warden. “Just get her that pill.”
      Raymond hugged both of his brothers, and for the first time ever said that he loved them, an act that was difficult even at that awful moment. He kissed his mother on the cheek and said good-bye.
      “Be a man,” Butch said with clenched teeth and wet eyes, and they embraced for the final time.

They led him away, and the nurse entered the room. She handed Inez a pill and a cup of water, and within minutes she was slumped in her wheelchair. The nurse sat beside her and said “I’m very sorry” to Butch and Leon.
      At 12:15, the door opened and a guard said, “Come with me.” The brothers were led from the room, into the hallway that was packed with guards and officials and many other curious onlookers lucky enough to gain access, and then back through the front entrance. Outside, the air was heavy, and the heat had not broken. They quickly lit cigarettes as they walked along a narrow sidewalk next to the west wing of the maximum security unit, past the open windows covered with thick black bars, and as they moved casually to the death room, they could hear the other condemned men banging their cell doors, yelling in protest, all making whatever noise they could in a last-minute farewell to one of their own.

Butch and Leon smoked furiously and wanted to yell something of their own, something in support of the inmates. But neither said a word. They turned a corner and saw a small, flat redbrick building with guards and others milling around its door. There was an ambulance beside it. Their escort led them through a side door to a cramped witness room, and upon entering, they saw faces they expected, but had no interest in seeing. Sheriff Walls was there because the law required it. The prosecutor was there, by choice. Charlene, Coy’s long-suffering widow, sat next to the sheriff. She was joined by two hefty young gals who were no doubt her daughters. The victims’ side of the witness room was separated by a wall of Plexiglas that allowed them to glare at the condemned man’s family but prevented them from speaking, or cursing. Butch and Leon sat in plastic chairs. Strangers shuffled in behind them, and when everyone was in place, the door was closed. The witness room was packed and hot.

They stared at nothing. The windows before them were shielded by black curtains so that they could not see the sinister preparations under way on the other side. There were sounds, indistinguishable movements. Suddenly the curtains were yanked open, and they were looking at the death room, twelve feet by fifteen, with a freshly painted concrete floor. In the center of it was the gas chamber, an octagon-shaped silver cylinder with windows of its own to allow proper witnessing and verification of death.
      And, there was Raymond, strapped to a chair inside the gas chamber, his head secured with some hideous brace that forced him to look ahead and prevented him from seeing the witnesses. At that moment he seemed to be looking up as the warden spoke to him. The prison attorney was present, as were some guards and of course the executioner and his assistant. All went about their tasks, whatever they were supposed to be doing, with grim determined looks, as if they were bothered by this ritual. In fact, all were volunteers, except for the warden and the attorney.

A small speaker hung from a nail in the witness room and conveyed the final sounds.
      The attorney stepped close to the chamber door and said: “Raymond, by law I’m required to read your death warrant.” He lifted a sheet of paper and continued: “Pursuant to a verdict of guilty and a sentence of death returned against you in the Circuit Court of Ford County, you are hereby sentenced to death by lethal gas in the gas chamber of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. May God have mercy on your soul.” He then stepped away and lifted a telephone from its receiver on the wall. He listened, then said, “No stays.”
      The warden said, “Any reason why this execution should not go forward?”
      “No,” said the attorney.
      “Any last words, Raymond?”
      Raymond’s voice was barely audible, but in the perfect stillness of the witness room he was heard: “I am sorry for what I did. I ask the forgiveness of the family of Coy Childers. I have been forgiven by my Lord. Let’s get this over with.”

The guards left the death room, leaving the warden and the attorney, who shuffled backward as far from Raymond as possible. The executioner stepped forward and closed the narrow chamber door. His assistant checked the seals around it. When the chamber was ready, they glanced around the death room—a quick inspection. No problems. The executioner disappeared into a small closet, the chemical room, where he controlled his valves.
      Long seconds passed. The witnesses gawked in horror and fascination and held their breaths. Raymond held his too, but not for long.

The executioner placed a plastic container of sulfuric acid into a tube that ran from the chemical room to a bowl in the bottom of the chamber, just under the chair that Raymond now occupied. He pulled a lever to release the canister. A clicking sound occurred, and most of those watching flinched. Raymond flinched too. His fingers clutched the arms of the chair. His spine stiffened. Seconds passed, then the sulfuric acid mixed with a collection of cyanide pellets already in the bowl, and the lethal steam began rising. When Raymond finally exhaled, when he could no longer hold his breath, he sucked in as much poison as possible to speed things along. His entire body reacted instantly with jolts and gyrations. His shoulders jumped back. His chin and forehead fought mightily against the leather head brace. His hands, arms, and legs shook violently as the steam rose and grew thicker.

His body reacted and fought for a minute or so, then the cyanide took control. The convulsions slowed. His head became still. His fingers loosened their death grip on the arms of the chair. The air continued to thicken as Raymond’s breathing slowed, then stopped. Some final twitching, a jolt in his chest muscles, a vibration in his hands, and finally it was over.
      He was pronounced dead at 12:31 a.m. The black curtains were closed, and the witnesses hustled from the room. Outside, Butch and Leon leaned on a corner of the redbrick building and smoked a cigarette.

Inside the death room, a vent above the chamber was opened, and the gas escaped into the sticky air over Parchman. Fifteen minutes later, guards with gloves unshackled Raymond and wrestled his body out of the chamber. His clothing was cut off, to be burned. His corpse was hosed off with cold water, then dried with kitchen towels, reclothed in prison whites, and laid inside a cheap pine coffin.
      Leon and Butch sat with their mother and waited for the warden. Inez was still sedated, but she clearly understood what had taken place in the last few minutes. Her head was buried in her hands, and she cried softly, mumbling occasionally. A guard entered and asked for the keys to Mr. McBride’s van. An hour dragged by.

The warden, fresh from his press announcement, finally entered the room. He offered some sappy condolences, managed to look sad and sympathetic, then asked Leon to sign some forms. He explained that Raymond left almost $1,000 in his prison account, and a check would be sent within a week. He said the van was loaded with the coffin and four boxes of Raymond’s belongings—his guitar, clothing, books, correspondence, legal materials, and manuscripts. They were free to go.

The coffin was moved to one side so Inez could be rolled through the back of the van, and when she touched it, she broke down again. Leon and Butch rearranged boxes, secured the wheelchair, then moved the coffin again. When everything was in its place, they followed a car full of guards back to the front of the prison, through the entrance, and when they turned onto Highway 3, they drove past the last of the protesters. The television crews were gone. Leon and Butch lit cigarettes, but Inez was too emotional to smoke. No one spoke for miles as they hurried through the cotton and soybean fields. Near the town of Marks, Leon spotted an all-night convenience store. He bought a soda for Butch and tall coffees for his mother and himself.
      When the Delta yielded to the hill country, they felt better.
      “What did he say last?” Inez asked, her tongue thick.
      “He apologized,” Butch said. “Asked Charlene for forgiveness.”
      “So she watched it?”
      “Oh yes. You didn’t think she’d miss it.”
      “I should’ve seen it.”
      “No, Momma,” Leon said. “You can be thankful for the rest of your days that you didn’t witness the execution. Your last memory of Raymond was a long hug and a nice farewell. Please don’t think you missed anything.”
      “It was horrible,” Butch said.
      “I should’ve seen it.”

In the town of Batesville they passed a fast-food place that advertised chicken biscuits and twenty-four-hour service. Leon turned around. “I could use the ladies’ room,” Inez said. There were no other customers inside at 3:15 in the morning. Butch rolled his mother to a table near the front, and they ate in silence. The van with Raymond’s coffin was less than thirty feet away.
      Inez managed a few bites, then lost her appetite. Butch and Leon ate like refugees.
      They entered Ford County just after 5:00 a.m., and it was still very dark, the roads empty. They drove to Pleasant Ridge in the north end of the county, to a small Pentecostal church where they parked in the gravel lot, and waited. At the first hint of sunlight, they heard an engine start somewhere in the distance.

“Wait here,” Leon said to Butch, then left the van and disappeared. Behind the church there was a cemetery, and at the far end of it a backhoe had just begun digging the grave. The backhoe was owned by a cousin’s boss. At 6:30, several men from the church arrived and went to the grave site. Leon drove the van down a dirt trail and stopped near the backhoe, which had finished its digging and was now just waiting. The men pulled the coffin from the van. Butch and Leon gently placed their mother’s wheelchair on the ground and pushed her as they followed the coffin.

They lowered it with ropes, and when it settled onto the four-by-four studs at the bottom, they withdrew the ropes. The preacher read a short verse of Scripture, then said a prayer. Leon and Butch shoveled some dirt onto the coffin, then thanked the men for their assistance.
      As they drove away, the backhoe was refilling the grave.

The house was empty—no concerned neighbors waiting, no relatives there to mourn. They unloaded Inez and rolled her into the house and into her bedroom. She was soon fast asleep. The four boxes were placed in a storage shed, where their contents would weather and fade along with the memories of Raymond.

It was decided that Butch would stay home that day to care for Inez, and to ward off the reporters. There had been many calls in the past week, and someone was bound to show up with a camera. He worked at a sawmill, and his boss would understand.

Leon drove to Clanton and stopped on the edge of town to fill up with gas. At 8:00 a.m. sharp he pulled in to the lot at McBride Upholstery and returned the van. An employee explained that Mr. McBride wasn’t in yet, was probably still at the coffee shop, and usually got to work around 9:00. Leon handed over the keys, thanked the employee, and left.

He drove to the lamp factory east of town, and punched the clock at 8:30, as always.

Excerpted from Ford County: Stories by John Grisham. Copyright © 2009 by Belfry Holdings Inc. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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John Grisham is the bestselling novelist of The Firm and The Pelican Brief, among others. His new book, Ford County, is out November 3.