John Grisham's Debut Short Story
Read an exclusive excerpt from John Grisham’s debut collection, Ford County, a heartbreaking tale of one family’s visit to death row.
Mr. McBride ran his upholstery shop in the old icehouse on Lee Street, a few blocks off the square in downtown Clanton. To haul the sofas and chairs back and forth, he used a white Ford cargo van with “McBride Upholstery” stenciled in thick black letters above a phone number and the address on Lee. The van, always clean and never in a hurry, was a common sight in Clanton, and Mr. McBride was fairly well-known because he was the only upholsterer in town. He rarely lent his van to anyone, though the requests were more frequent than he would have liked. His usual response was a polite “No, I have some deliveries.”
He said yes to Leon Graney, though, and did so for two reasons. First, the circumstances surrounding the request were quite unusual, and, second, Leon’s boss at the lamp factory was Mr. McBride’s third cousin. Small-town relationships being what they are, Leon Graney arrived at the upholstery shop as scheduled at four o’clock on a hot Wednesday afternoon in late July.
Most of Ford County was listening to the radio, and it was widely known that things were not going well for the Graney family. Mr. McBride walked with Leon to the van, handed over the key, and said, “You take care of it, now.”
Leon took the key and said, “I’m much obliged.” “I filled up the tank. Should be plenty to get you there and back.” “How much do I owe?” Mr. McBride shook his head and spat on the gravel beside the van. “Nothing. It’s on me. Just bring it back with a full tank.” “I’d feel better if I could pay something,” Leon protested. “No.” “Well, thank you, then.” “I need it back by noon tomorrow.” “It’ll be here. Mind if I leave my truck?” Leon nodded to an old Japanese pickup wedged between two cars across the lot. “That’ll be fine.”
Leon opened the door and got inside the van. He started the engine, adjusted the seat and the mirrors. Mr. McBride walked to the driver’s door, lit an unfiltered cigarette, and watched Leon. “You know, some folks don’t like this,” he said. “Thank you, but most folks around here don’t care,” Leon replied. He was preoccupied and not in the mood for small talk. “Me, I think it’s wrong.”
“Thank you. I’ll be back before noon,” Leon said softly, then backed away and disappeared down the street. He settled into the seat, tested the brakes, slowly gunned the engine to check the power. Twenty minutes later he was far from Clanton, deep in the hills of northern Ford County. Out from the settlement of Pleasant Ridge, the road became gravel, the homes smaller and farther apart. Leon turned in to a short driveway that stopped at a boxlike house with weeds at the doors and an asphalt shingle roof in need of replacement. It was the Graney home, the place he’d been raised along with his brothers, the only constant in their sad and chaotic lives. A jerry-rigged plywood ramp ran to the side door so that his mother, Inez Graney, could come and go in her wheelchair.
By the time Leon turned off the engine, the side door was open and Inez was rolling out and onto the ramp. Behind her was the hulking mass of her middle son, Butch, who still lived with his mother because he’d never lived anywhere else, at least not in the free world. Sixteen of his forty-six years had been behind bars, and he looked the part of the career criminal—long ponytail, studs in his ears, all manner of facial hair, massive biceps, and a collection of cheap tattoos a prison artist had sold him for cigarettes. In spite of his past, Butch handled his mother and her wheelchair with great tenderness and care, speaking softly to her as they negotiated the ramp.
Leon watched and waited, then walked to the rear of the van and opened its double doors. He and Butch gently lifted their mother up and sat her inside the van. Butch pushed her forward to the console that separated the two bucket seats bolted into the floor. Leon latched the wheelchair into place with strips of packing twine someone at McBride’s had left in the van, and when Inez was secure, her boys got settled in their seats. The journey began. Within minutes they were back on the asphalt and headed for a long night.
Inez was seventy-two, a mother of three, grandmother of at least four, a lonely old woman in failing health who couldn’t remember her last bit of good luck. Though she’d considered herself single for almost thirty years, she was not, at least to her knowledge, officially divorced from the miserable creature who’d practically raped her when she was seventeen, married her when she was eighteen, fathered her three boys, then mercifully disappeared from the face of the earth. When she prayed on occasion, she never failed to toss in an earnest request that Ernie be kept away from her, be kept wherever his miserable life had taken him, if in fact his life had not already ended in some painful manner, which was really what she dreamed of but didn’t have the audacity to ask of the Lord. Ernie was still blamed for everything—for her bad health and poverty, her reduced status in life, her seclusion, her lack of friends, even the scorn of her own family. But her harshest condemnation of Ernie was for his despicable treatment of his three sons. Abandoning them was far more merciful than beating them.
By the time they reached the highway, all three needed a cigarette. “Reckon McBride’ll mind if we smoke?” Butch said. At three packs a day he was always reaching for a pocket. “Somebody’s been smokin’ in here,” Inez said. “Smells like a tar pit. Is the air conditioner on, Leon?” “Yes, but you can’t tell it if the windows are down.”
With little concern for Mr. McBride’s preferences on smoking in his van, they were soon puffing away with the windows down, the warm wind rushing in and swirling about. Once inside the van, the wind had no exit, no other windows, no vents, nothing to let it out, so it roared back toward the front and engulfed the three Graneys, who were staring at the road, smoking intently, seemingly oblivious to everything as the van moved along the county road. Butch and Leon casually flicked their ashes out of the windows. Inez gently tapped hers into her cupped left hand. “How much did McBride charge you?” Butch asked from the passenger’s seat. Leon shook his head. “Nothing. Even filled up the tank. Said he didn’t agree with this. Claimed a lot of folks don’t like it.” “I’m not sure I believe that.” “I don’t.”
When the three cigarettes were finished, Leon and Butch rolled up their windows and fiddled with the air conditioner and the vents. Hot air shot out and minutes passed before the heat was broken. All three were sweating. “You okay back there?” Leon asked, glancing over his shoulder and smiling at his mother. “I’m fine. Thank you. Does the air conditioner work?” “Yes, it’s gettin’ cooler now.” “I can’t feel a thang.” “You wanna stop for a soda or something?” “No. Let’s hurry along.” “I’d like a beer,” Butch said, and, as if this was expected, Leon immediately shook his head in the negative and Inez shot forth with an emphatic “No.”
“There’ll be no drinking,” she said, and the issue was laid to rest. When Ernie abandoned the family years earlier, he’d taken nothing but his shotgun, a few clothes, and all the liquor from his private supply. He’d been a violent drunk, and his boys still carried the scars, emotional and physical. Leon, the oldest, had felt more of the brutality than his younger brothers, and as a small boy equated alcohol with the horrors of an abusive father. He had never taken a drink, though with time had found his own vices. Butch, on the other hand, had drunk heavily since his early teens, though he’d never been tempted to sneak alcohol into his mother’s home. Raymond, the youngest, had chosen to follow the example of Butch rather than of Leon.
To shift away from such an unpleasant topic, Leon asked his mother about the latest news from a friend down the road, an old spinster who’d been dying of cancer for years. Inez, as always, perked up when discussing the ailments and treatments of her neighbors, and herself as well. The air conditioner finally broke through, and the thick humidity inside the van began to subside. When he stopped sweating, Butch reached for his pocket, fished out a cigarette, lit it, then cracked the window. The temperature rose immediately. Soon all three were smoking, and the windows went lower and lower until the air was again thick with heat and nicotine.
When they finished, Inez said to Leon, “Raymond called two hours ago.” This was no surprise. Raymond had been making calls, collect, for days now, and not only to his mother. Leon’s phone was ringing so often that his (third) wife refused to answer it. Others around town were also declining to accept charges. “What’d he say?” Leon asked, but only because he had to reply. He knew exactly what Raymond had said, maybe not verbatim, but certainly in general. “Said thangs are lookin’ real good, said he’d probably have to fire the team of lawyers he has now so he can hire another team of lawyers. You know Raymond. He’s tellin’ the lawyers what to do and they’re just fallin’ all over themselves.” Without turning his head, Butch cut his eyes at Leon, and Leon returned the glance. Nothing was said because words were not necessary. “Said his new team comes from a firm in Chicago with a thousand lawyers. Can you imagine? A thousand lawyers workin’ for Raymond. And he’s tellin’ ’em what to do.”
Another glance between driver and right-side passenger. Inez had cataracts, and her peripheral vision had declined. If she had seen the looks being passed between her two oldest, she would not have been pleased. “Said they’ve just discovered some new evidence that shoulda been produced at trial but wasn’t because the cops and the prosecutors covered it up, and with this new evidence Raymond feels real good about gettin’ a new trial back here in Clanton, though he’s not sure he wants it here, so he might move it somewhere else. He’s thinkin’ about somewhere in the Delta because the Delta juries have more blacks and he says that blacks are more sympathetic in cases like this. What do you thank about that, Leon?” “There are definitely more blacks in the Delta,” Leon said. Butch grunted and mumbled, but his words were not clear. “Said he don’t trust anyone in Ford County, especially the law and the judges. God knows they’ve never given us a break.” Leon and Butch nodded in silent agreement. Both had been chewed up by the law in Ford County, Butch much more so than Leon. And though they had pled guilty to their crimes in negotiated deals, they had always believed they were persecuted simply because they were Graneys. “Don’t know if I can stand another trial, though,” she said, and her words trailed off.
Leon wanted to say that Raymond’s chances of getting a new trial were worse than slim, and that he’d been making noise about a new trial for over a decade. Butch wanted to say pretty much the same thing, but he would’ve added that he was sick of Raymond’s jailhouse bullshit about lawyers and trials and new evidence and that it was past time for the boy to stop blaming everybody else and take his medicine like a man. But neither said a word. “Said the both of you ain’t sent him his stipends for last month,” she said. “That true?” Five miles passed before another word was spoken. “Ya’ll hear me up there?” Inez said. “Raymond says ya’ll ain’t mailed in his stipends for the month of June, and now it’s already July. Ya’ll forget about it?”
Leon went first, and unloaded. “Forget about it? How can we forget about it? That’s all he talks about. I get a letter every day, sometimes two, not that I read ’em all, but every letter mentions the stipend. ‘Thanks for the money, bro.’ ‘Don’t forget the money, Leon, I’m counting on you, big brother.’ ‘Gotta have the money to pay the lawyers, you know how much those bloodsuckers can charge.’ ‘Ain’t seen the stipend this month, bro.’” “What the hell is a stipend?” Butch shot from the right side, his voice suddenly edgy. “A regular or fixed payment, according to Webster’s,” Leon said. “It’s just money, right?” “Right.” “So why can’t he just say something like, ‘Send me the damned money’? Or, ‘Where’s the damned money?’ Why does he have to use the fancy words?” “We’ve had this conversation a thousand times,” Inez said. “Well, you sent him a dictionary,” Leon said to Butch. “That was ten years ago, at least. And he begged me for it.” “Well, he’s still got it, still wearing it out looking for words we ain’t seen before.” "I often wonder if his lawyers can keep up with his vocabulary,” Butch mused.
“Ya’ll’re tryin’ to change the subject up there,” Inez said. “Why didn’t you send him his stipends last month?” “I thought I did,” Butch said without conviction. “I don’t believe that,” she said. “The check’s in the mail,” Leon said. “I don’t believe that either. We all agreed to send him $100 each, every month, twelve months a year. It’s the least we can do. I know it’s hard, especially on me, livin’ on Social Security and all. But you boys have jobs, and the least you can do is squeeze out $100 each for your little brother so he can buy decent food and pay his lawyers.” “Do we have to go through this again?” Leon asked. “I hear it every day,” Butch said. “If I don’t hear from Raymond, on the phone or through the mail, then I hear it from Momma.” “Is that a complaint?” she asked. “Got a problem with your livin’ arrangements? Stayin’ in my house for free, and yet you want to complain?” “Come on,” Leon said. “Who’ll take care of you?” Butch offered in his defense. “Knock it off, you two. This gets so old.”
All three took a deep breath, then began reaching for the cigarettes. After a long, quiet smoke, they settled in for another round. Inez got things started with a pleasant “Me, I never miss a month. And, if you’ll recall, I never missed a month when the both of you was locked up at Parchman.” Leon grunted, slapped the wheel, and said angrily, “Momma, that was twenty-five years ago. Why bring it up now? I ain’t had so much as a speedin’ ticket since I got paroled.” Butch, whose life in crime had been much more colorful than Leon’s, and who was still on parole, said nothing.
“I never missed a month,” she said. “Come on.” “And sometimes it was $200 a month ’cause I had two of you there at one time, as I recall. Guess I was lucky I never had all three behind bars. Couldn’t’ve paid my light bill.” “I thought those lawyers worked for free,” Butch said in an effort to deflect attention from himself and hopefully direct it toward a target outside the family. “They do,” Leon said. “It’s called pro bono work, and all lawyers are supposed to do some of it. As far as I know, these big firms who come in on cases like this don’t expect to get paid.” “Then what’s Raymond doin’ with $300 a month if he ain’t payin’ his lawyers?” “We’ve had this conversation,” Inez said.
“I’m sure he spends a fortune on pens, paper, envelopes, and postage,” Leon said. “He claims he writes ten letters a day. Hell, that’s over $100 a month right there.” “Plus he’s written eight novels,” Butch added quickly. “Or is it nine, Momma? I can’t remember.” “Nine.” “Nine novels, several volumes of poetry, bunch of short stories, hundreds of songs. Just think of all the paper he goes through,” Butch said. “Are you pokin’ fun at Raymond?” she asked. “Never.” “He sold a short story once,” she said. “Of course he did. What was the magazine? Hot Rodder? Paid him forty bucks for a story about a man who stole a thousand hubcaps. They say you write what you know.”
“How many stories have you sold?” she asked. “None, because I haven’t written any, and the reason I haven’t written any is because I realize that I don’t have the talent to write. If my little brother would also realize that he has no artistic talents whatsoever, then he could save some money and hundreds of people would not be subjected to his nonsense.” “That’s very cruel.” “No, Momma, it’s very honest. And if you’d been honest with him a long time ago, then maybe he would’ve stopped writing. But no. You read his books and his poetry and his short stories and told him the stuff was great. So he wrote more, with longer words, longer sentences, longer paragraphs, and got to the point to where now we can hardly understand a damned thang he writes.” “So it’s all my fault?” “Not 100 percent, no.” “He writes for therapy.” “I’ve been there. I don’t see how writin’ helps any.” “He says it helps.”
“Are these books handwritten or typed up?” Leon asked, interrupting. “Typed,” Butch said. “Who types ’em?” “He has to pay some guy over in the law library,” Inez said. “A dollar a page, and one of the books was over eight hundred pages. I read it, though, ever’ word.” “Did you understand ever’ word?” Butch asked. “Most of ’em. A dictionary helps. Lord, I don’t know where that boy finds those words.” “And Raymond sent these books up to New York to get published, right?” Leon asked, pressing on. “Yes, and they sent ’em right back,” she said. “I guess they couldn’t understand all his words either.” “You’d think those people in New York would understand what he’s sayin’,” Leon said. “No one understands what he’s sayin’,” Butch said. “That’s the problem with Raymond the novelist, and Raymond the poet, and Raymond the political prisoner, and Raymond the songwriter, and Raymond the lawyer. No person in his right mind could possibly have any idea what Raymond says when he starts writin’.”
“So, if I understand this correctly,” Leon said, “a large portion of Raymond’s overhead has been spent to finance his literary career. Paper, postage, typing, copying, shipping to New York and back. That right, Momma?” “I guess.” “And it’s doubtful if his stipends have actually gone to pay his lawyers,” Leon said. “Very doubtful,” Butch said. “And don’t forget his music career. He spends money on guitar strings and sheet music. Plus, they now allow the prisoners to rent tapes. That’s how Raymond became a blues singer. He listened to B. B. King and Muddy Waters, and, according to Raymond, he now entertains his colleagues on death row with late-night sessions of the blues.” “Oh, I know. He’s told me about it in his letters.” “He always had a good voice,” Inez said. “I never heard ’im sang,” Leon said. “Me neither,” Butch added.
They were on the bypass around Oxford, two hours away from Parchman. The upholstery van seemed to run best at sixty miles an hour; anything faster and the front tires shook a bit. There was no hurry. West of Oxford the hills began to flatten; the Delta was not far away. Inez recognized a little white country church off to the right, next to a cemetery, and it occurred to her that the church had not changed in all the many years she had made this journey to the state penitentiary. She asked herself how many other women in Ford County had made as many of these trips, but she knew the answer. Leon had started the tradition many years earlier with a thirty-month incarceration, and back then the rules allowed her to visit on the first Sunday of each month. Sometimes Butch drove her and sometimes she paid a neighbor’s son, but she never missed a visitation and she always took peanut butter fudge and extra toothpaste. Six months after Leon was paroled, he was driving her so she could visit Butch. Then it was Butch and Raymond, but in different units with different rules.
Then Raymond killed the deputy, and they locked him down on death row, which had its own rules. With practice, most unpleasant tasks become bearable, and Inez Graney had learned to look forward to the visits. Her sons had been condemned by the rest of the county, but their mother would never abandon them. She was there when they were born, and she was there when they were beaten. She had suffered through their court appearances and parole hearings, and she had told anyone who would listen that they were good boys who’d been abused by the man she’d chosen to marry. All of it was her fault. If she’d married a decent man, her children might have had normal lives. “Reckon that woman’ll be there?” Leon asked. “Lord, Lord,” Inez groaned. “Why would she miss the show?” Butch said. “I’m sure she’ll be around somewhere.” “Lord, Lord.”
That woman was Tallulah, a fruitcake who’d entered their lives a few years earlier and managed to make a bad situation much worse. Through one of the abolitionist groups, she’d made contact with Raymond, who responded in typical fashion with a lengthy letter filled with claims of innocence and maltreatment and the usual drivel about his budding literary and music careers. He sent her some poems, love sonnets, and she became obsessed with him. They met in the visitation room at death row and, through a thick metal screen window, fell in love. Raymond sang a few blues tunes, and Tallulah was swept away. There was talk of a marriage, but those plans were put on hold until Tallulah’s then-current husband was executed by the State of Georgia. After a brief period of mourning, she traveled to Parchman for a bizarre ceremony that was recognized by no identifiable state law or religious doctrine. Anyway, Raymond was in love, and, thus inspired, his prodigious letter writing reached new heights. The family was forewarned that Tallulah was anxious to visit Ford County and see her new in-laws. She indeed arrived, but when they refused to acknowledge her, she instead paid a visit to the Ford County Times, where she shared her rambling thoughts, her insights into the plight of poor Raymond Graney, and her promises that new evidence would clear him in the death of the deputy. She also announced that she was pregnant with Raymond’s child, a result of several conjugal visits now available to death row inmates.
Tallulah made the front page, photo and all, but the reporter had been wise enough to check with Parchman. Conjugal visits were not allowed for the inmates, especially those on death row. And there was no official record of a marriage. Undaunted, Tallulah continued to wave Raymond’s flag, and even went so far as to haul several of his bulky manuscripts to New York, where they were again rejected by publishers with little vision. With time she faded away, though Inez, Leon, and Butch lived with the horror that another Graney might soon be born, somewhere. In spite of the rules regarding conjugal visits, they knew Raymond. He could find a way.
After two years, Raymond informed the family that he and Tallulah would be seeking a divorce and, to properly obtain one, he needed $500. This touched off another nasty episode of bickering and name-calling, and the money was raised only after he threatened suicide, and not for the first time. Not long after the checks had been mailed, Raymond wrote with the great news that he and Tallulah had reconciled. He did not offer to return the money to Inez, Butch, and Leon, though all three suggested that he do so. Raymond declined on the grounds that his new team of lawyers needed the money to hire experts and investigators.
What irked Leon and Butch was their brother’s sense of entitlement, as though they, the family, owed him the money because of his persecution. In the early days of his imprisonment, both Leon and Butch had reminded Raymond that he had not sent them the first penny when they were behind bars and he was not. This had led to another nasty episode that Inez had been forced to mediate.
She sat bent and unmoving in her wheelchair, with a large canvas bag in her lap. As the thoughts of Tallulah began to fade, she opened the bag and withdrew a letter from Raymond, his latest. She opened the envelope, plain and white with his swirling cursive writing all over the front, and unfolded two sheets of yellow tablet paper.
Dearest Mother: It is becoming increasingly obvious and apparent that the cumbersome and unwieldy yes even lethargic machinations of our inequitable and dishonorable yes even corrupt judicial system have inevitably and irrevocably trained their loathsome and despicable eyes upon me.
Inez took a breath, then read the sentence again. Most of the words looked familiar. After years of reading with a letter in one hand and a dictionary in the other, she was amazed at how much her vocabulary had expanded. Butch glanced back, saw the letter, shook his head, but said nothing.
However, the State of Mississippi will once again be thwarted and stymied and left in thorough and consummate degradation in its resolution to extract blood from Raymond T. Graney. For I have procured and retained the services of a young lawyer with astonishing skills, an extraordinary advocate judiciously chosen by me from the innumerable legions of barristers quite literally throwing themselves at my feet.
Another pause, another quick rereading. Inez was barely hanging on.
Not surprisingly, a lawyer of such exquisite and superlative yes even singular proficiencies and dexterities cannot labor and effectively advocate on my behalf without appropriate recompense.
“What’s recompense?” she asked. “Spell it,” Butch said. She spelled it slowly, and the three pondered the word. This exercise in language skills had become as routine as talking about the weather. “How’s it used?” Butch asked, so she read the sentence. “Money,” Butch said, and Leon quickly agreed. Raymond’s mysterious words often had something to do with money. “Let me guess. He’s got a new lawyer and needs some extra money to pay him.” Inez ignored him and kept reading.
It is with great reluctance even trepidation that I desperately beseech you and implore you to procure the quite reasonable sum of $1,500 which will forthrightly find application in my defense and undoubtedly extricate me and emancipate me and otherwise save my ass. Come on, Momma, now is the hour for the family to join hands and metaphorically circle the wagons. Your reluctance yes even your recalcitrance will be deemed pernicious neglect.
”What’s recalcitrance?” she asked. “Spell it,” Leon said. She spelled “recalcitrance,” then “pernicious,” and after a halfhearted debate it was obvious that none of the three had a clue.
One final note before I move on to more pressing correspondence—Butch and Leon have again neglected my stipends. Their latest perfidies concern the month of June, and it’s already halfway through July. Please torment, harass, vex, heckle, and badger those two blockheads until they honor their commitments to my defense fund. Love, as always, from your dearest and favorite son, Raymond
Each letter sent to a death row inmate was read by someone in the mail room at Parchman, and each outgoing letter was likewise scrutinized. Inez had often pitied the poor soul assigned to read Raymond’s missives. They never failed to tire Inez, primarily because they required work. She was afraid she would miss something important. The letters drained her. The lyrics put her to sleep. The novels produced migraines. The poetry could not be penetrated.
She wrote back twice a week, without fail, because if she neglected her youngest by even a day or so, she could expect a torrent of abuse, a four-pager or maybe a five-pager with blistering language that contained words often not found in a dictionary. And even the slightest delay in mailing in her stipend would cause unpleasant collect phone calls.
Of the three, Raymond had been the best student, though none had finished high school. Leon had been the better athlete, Butch the better musician, but little Raymond got the brains. And he made it all the way to the eleventh grade before he got caught with a stolen motorcycle and spent sixty days in a juvenile facility. He was sixteen, five years younger than Butch and ten younger than Leon, and already the Graney boys were developing the reputation as skillful car thieves. Raymond joined the family business and forgot about school. “So how much does he want this time?” Butch asked. “Fifteen hundred, for a new lawyer. Said you two ain’t sent his stipends for last month.” “Drop it, Momma,” Leon said harshly, and for a long time nothing else was said.
When the first car theft ring was broken, Leon took the fall and did his time at Parchman. Upon his release, he married his second wife and managed to go straight. Butch and Raymond made no effort at going straight; in fact, they expanded their activities. They fenced stolen guns and appliances, dabbled in the marijuana trade, ran moonshine, and of course stole cars and sold them to various chop shops in north Mississippi. Butch got busted when he stole an 18-wheeler that was supposed to be full of Sony televisions but in fact was a load of chain-link fencing. Televisions are easy to move on the black market. Chain link proved far more difficult. In the course of events the sheriff raided Butch’s hiding place and found the contraband, useless as it was. He pleaded to eighteen months, his first stint at Parchman. Raymond avoided indictment and lived to steal again. He stuck to his first love—cars and pickups—and prospered nicely, though all profits were wasted on booze, gambling, and an astounding string of bad women.
From the beginning of their careers as thieves, the Graney boys were hounded by an obnoxious deputy named Coy Childers. Coy suspected them in every misdemeanor and felony in Ford County. He watched them, followed them, threatened them, harassed them, and at various times arrested them for good cause or for no cause whatsoever. All three had been beaten by Coy in the depths of the Ford County jail. They had complained bitterly to the sheriff, Coy’s boss, but no one listens to the whining of known criminals. And the Graneys became quite well-known.
For revenge, Raymond stole Coy’s patrol car and sold it to a chop shop in Memphis. He kept the police radio and mailed it back to Coy in an unmarked parcel. Raymond was arrested and would’ve been beaten but for the intervention of his court-appointed lawyer. There was no proof at all, nothing to link him to the crime except some well-founded suspicion. Two months later, after Raymond had been released, Coy bought his wife a new Chevrolet Impala. Raymond promptly stole it from a church parking lot during Wednesday night prayer meeting and sold it to a chop shop near Tupelo. By then, Coy was openly vowing to kill Raymond Graney.
There were no witnesses to the actual killing, or at least none who would come forward. It happened late on a Friday night, on a gravel road not far from a double-wide trailer Raymond was sharing with his latest girlfriend. The prosecution’s theory was that Coy had parked his car and was approaching quietly on foot, alone, with the plan to confront Raymond and perhaps even arrest him. Coy was found after sunrise by some deer hunters. He’d been shot twice in the forehead by a high-powered rifle, and he was positioned in a slight dip in the gravel road, which allowed a large amount of blood to accumulate around his body. The crime scene photos caused two jurors to vomit.
Raymond and his girl claimed to be away at a honky-tonk, but evidently they had been the only customers because no other alibi witnesses could be found. Ballistics traced the bullets to a stolen rifle fenced through one of Raymond’s longtime underworld associates, and though there was no proof that Raymond had ever owned, stolen, borrowed, or possessed the rifle, the suspicion was enough. The prosecutor convinced the jury that Raymond had motive—he hated Coy, and he was, after all, a convicted felon; he had opportunity—Coy was found near Raymond’s trailer, and there were no neighbors within miles; and he had the means—the alleged murder weapon was waved around the courtroom, complete with an army-issue scope that may have allowed the killer to see through the darkness, though there was no evidence the scope was actually attached to the rifle when it was used to kill Coy.
Raymond’s alibi was weak. His girlfriend, too, had a criminal record and made a lousy witness. His court-appointed defense lawyer subpoenaed three people who were supposed to testify that they had heard Coy vow to kill Raymond Graney. All three faltered under the pressure of sitting in the witness chair and being glared at by the sheriff and at least ten of his uniformed deputies. It was a questionable defense strategy to begin with. If Raymond believed Coy was coming to kill him, then did he, Raymond, act in self-defense? Was Raymond admitting to the crime? No, he was not. He insisted he knew nothing about it and was dancing in a bar when someone else took care of Coy. In spite of the overwhelming public pressure to convict Raymond, the jury stayed out for two days before finally doing so.
A year later, the Feds broke up a methamphetamine ring, and in the aftermath of a dozen hasty plea bargains it was learned that Deputy Coy Childers had been heavily involved in the drug-distribution syndicate. Two other murders, very similar in details, had taken place over in Marshall County, sixty miles away. Coy’s stellar reputation among the locals was badly tarnished. The gossip began to fester about who really killed him, though Raymond remained the favorite suspect. His conviction and death sentence were unanimously affirmed by the state’s supreme court. More appeals led to more affirmations, and now, eleven years later, the case was winding down.
West of Batesville, the hills finally yielded to the flatlands, and the highway cut through fields thick with midsummer cotton and soybeans. Farmers on their green John Deeres poked along the highway as if it had been built for tractors and not automobiles. But the Graneys were in no hurry. The van moved on, past an idle cotton gin, abandoned shotgun shacks, new double-wide trailers with satellite dishes and big trucks parked at the doors, and an occasional fine home set back to keep the traffic away from the landowners. At the town of Marks, Leon turned south, and they moved deeper into the Delta. “I reckon Charlene’ll be there,” Inez said. “Most certainly,” Leon said. “She wouldn’t miss it for anything,” Butch said.
Charlene was Coy’s widow, a long-suffering woman who had embraced the martyrdom of her husband with unusual enthusiasm. Over the years she had joined every victims’ group she could find, state and national. She threatened lawsuits against the newspaper and anybody else who questioned Coy’s integrity. She had written long letters to the editor demanding speedier justice for Raymond Graney. And she had missed not one court hearing along the way, even traveling as far as New Orleans when the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals had the case. “She’s been prayin’ for this day,” Leon said. “Well, she better keep prayin’ ’cause Raymond said it ain’t gonna happen,” Inez said. “He promised me his lawyers are much better than the state’s lawyers and that they’re filin’ papers by the truckload.”
Leon glanced at Butch, who made eye contact, then gazed at the cotton fields. They passed through the farm settlements of Vance, Tutwiler, and Rome as the sun was finally fading. Dusk brought the swarms of insects that hit the hood and windshield. They smoked with the windows down, and said little. The approach to Parchman always subdued the Graneys—Butch and Leon for obvious reasons, and Inez because it reminded her of her shortcomings as a mother. Parchman was an infamous prison, but it was also a farm, a plantation, that sprawled over eighteen thousand acres of rich black soil that had produced cotton and profits for the state for decades until the federal courts got involved and pretty much abolished slave labor. In another lawsuit, another federal court ended the segregated conditions. More litigation had made life slightly better, though violence was worse.
For Leon, thirty months there turned him away from crime, and that was what the law-abiding citizens demanded of a prison. For Butch, his first sentence proved that he could survive another, and no car or truck was safe in Ford County. Highway 3 ran straight and flat, and there was little traffic. It was almost dark when the van passed the small green highway sign that simply said, Parchman. Ahead there were lights, activity, something unusual happening. To the right were the white stone front gates of the prison, and across the highway in a gravel lot a circus was under way. Death penalty protesters were busy. Some knelt in a circle and prayed. Some walked a tight formation with handmade posters supporting Ray Graney. Another group sang a hymn. Another knelt around a priest and held candles. Farther down the highway, a smaller group chanted pro-death slogans and tossed insults at the supporters of Graney. Uniformed deputies kept the peace. Television news crews were busy recording it all.
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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.