Dry Grass

by Daniel Payne

One of the guards opened the door to the Warden’s office and Zane walked in and looked around at the half-dozen men standing there. They were all wearing suits like him and they all looked worried and scared and unhappy.

“Howdy,” Zane said.

The Warden, standing behind his desk, came around with his hand outstretched. “Mr. Zane,” he said. “Come on in. Please, have a seat.”

“It looks like everyone else is standing,” Zane said as they shook hands.

“Sure,” the Warden said. “Sure, stand. Come on in.” The guard closed the door behind them.

The Warden gestured to the five other men. Zane shook each of their hands: a coroner, the attorney general, two doctors, and the executioner of the prison. They did not say hello or even speak as they shook his hand. The Warden stepped behind his desk again.

“I’m glad you came,” the Warden said. “How’s the Governor?”

“He’s fine,” Zane said. “He’s concerned about the situation. I hope we can get down to it right away.”

“Sure,” the Warden said. “Sure.” He gestured to the executioner, who went over to a small table by the window and picked up a manila folder and brought it over to the Warden. “We can head on over there right now, if you’d like.”

“I’d like that very much,” Zane said. “He’s expecting a full report within two hours.”

“Of course,” the Warden said. “Come on. I’ll be back shortly, gentlemen.” He came around his desk and opened the door and motioned for Zane to walk out. Zane walked out and the Warden followed and closed the door behind him. They walked down the hallway towards the stairwell that would take them out the building and over to the other building where the situation was.

“You’re familiar with the inmate, I assume,” the Warden said.

“Refresh my memory,” Zane said.

The Warden nodded. He flipped open the file as they walked. “Billy Waverly Judkins. Age forty-five. Convicted seven and a half years ago for the murder of Anna Lowery, age ten. Charged with the deaths of nine other girls, all of them under the age of thirteen. Rape, torture, murder. Swore he was innocent. Claimed that he was the Second Coming of Christ. Two escape attempts, one of them successful for thirty-six hours.” The Warden stumbled a little bit and Zane caught him. The Warden shook his head.

“How long have you been up for?” Zane asked as they opened the door and began to walk down the stairs.

“About thirty-five hours,” the Warden said.

“Jesus,” Zane said. “You need to get some sleep.”

“Not that easy.”

They went down the last flight of stairs and came to the door and pushed it open. The bright sunlight struck both of them and they squinted as they stepped out. It was cool and October outside. They walked towards the building at the western edge of the prison and their feet crunched the leaves on the sidewalk.

“Anything else you need to know?” the Warden asked. “The Second Coming thing, most of them do that. I’m afraid there’s not much out of the ordinary in his file.”

“What was his last meal?”

The Warden looked at him. “That’s a potentially loaded question,” he said.

Zane smiled. As they got closer to the building his stomach began twisting in knots. “All right. What did he request for his last meal, then?”

The Warden sighed. “Bread and wine,” he said.

“You give him the wine?”

“No,” the Warden said. “We did grape juice. He said that was okay. He blessed both of them. He said that you could – what did he say? He said, ‘You can turn any liquid into my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant.’ He forked the sign of the cross over the food and then ate it right up.” The Warden grimaced. “Christ.”

“No doubt,” Zane said, and they both laughed, but the Warden’s was weak and small. They were almost to the building now.

“Is the Governor angry?” the Warden asked.

“He’s not angry,” Zane said. “He really doesn’t know what to think at all. None of us does. Everybody’s waiting by the phone back at the Capitol for my call. They all want to know if it’s true.”

“It’s true, all right. I swear to Christ it is.” The Warden opened the gate to the yard of the building and Zane walked through and the Warden followed. “I’ve seen it.”

Zane looked over at the Warden as they walked up to the building with Block G stamped over the doorway. The Warden was sweating even though it was cool outside and he was pale and his hair was lank and his eyes were shrunk back into his head. He was trembling a little bit. His legs were unsteady. Zane had seen the Warden once at a fundraiser for the State Correctional System and had thought that nobody looked as suited to be a Warden as he did. Then he had been strong, tough, hard-looking; now he looked like a piece of taffy stretched and pulled until it was nearly twine. As they got to the door the Warden asked, “How many people know?”

“It doesn’t seem like anyone does yet,” Zane said. “The press hasn’t spoken about it.”

“We managed to hustle them out of there,” the Warden said, “after it was clear what was…well, everything looked normal to them, as far as I know.”

“And you pronounced him dead.”

“Yeah. We did it an hour later than we normally do because we didn’t know what to do. We said it had been a malfunctioning circuit that had made it take so long.” The Warden reached up and pulled open the door and Zane walked through and the Warden followed. This building was stark and undecorated and they were walking down a short hallway to a set of doors at the end.

“No prisoners seem to be aware of what’s going on, either,” the Warden said. “We’d know right away if they did, I think. I think there would be an uproar.”

Zane stopped. The Warden kept walking a few more steps and then stopped and turned around. “What?” he asked.

“Warden,” Zane said, “you understand that if this gets out, the uproar from the prisoners is the last thing you’re going to have to worry about. If this gets out then you’re going to have every single human rights group in the entire world converging on your prison. And that’s just for starters.”

The Warden nodded. “I know,” he said.

“And now that I’ve been here to see it,” Zane went on, “and if I take this back to the Governor, and he keeps it under wraps for however much longer it goes on – that’s the end of him, too. Everybody’s poised to fall from this once I get myself a look.”

The Warden nodded again. “I know that,” he said.

“I’m not trying to be obvious,” Zane said.

“All right.”

“Just as long as you understand what’s poised over us.”

“I do.”

“Okay.” Zane looked up the hallway. “Which one is it?”

“The one on the right,” the Warden said. “The left one is the observation room.”

They began walking again. “Who else was in the o.r.?” Zane asked.

The Warden shook his head. “Me. The Captain of the Guards. A couple of Prison Board members. That was it.”

“Not his lawyer?”

“No. His lawyer died about eighteen months ago.”

“What about the parents of the girls?” Zane asked.

The Warden sighed. “None of them wanted to come,” he said.

“That’s incredible.”

“That,” the Warden said, “is very, very fortunate.” They reached the end of the hall and the Warden knocked on the door and a metal plate slid aside from it and a pair of eyes poked out. “Warden,” a voice said from behind the door, and there was a series of clicks and clacks and the door swung open. They were in a small chamber with a chair on one side and another thick door on the other wall. A young guard was standing in the room, a carbine clutched in his hands. The guard’s eyes were wide and he was clutching his gun very tightly. “Warden, sir,” he said.

“Hi, Frisk,” the Warden said. “This is Mr. Zane from the Governor’s office.”

Zane wasn’t sure if Frisk would shake hands, holding the gun as tight as he was doing, so Zane nodded his head instead and Frisk nodded back. They stepped into the chamber and the air was cool and ventilated on the inside. Frisk closed the door and snapped several locks shut.

“It’s on the other side of that door,” the Warden said. “You can go on in. They’re expecting you.”

“Are you coming in with me?” Zane asked.

The Warden shook his head. “No,” he said. “I’m not. I’ve been in too many times already.”

Zane looked at both of them – scared kid, scared man – and then walked slowly across the short distance to the other door. He wasn’t sure if this one was going to be locked but it wasn’t and he pushed it open and he heard the Warden and Frisk turn away and he stepped through the door and closed it quickly so they wouldn’t have to look.

He was in a room about the size of a large shed. Running down the length of the left wall was a series of interlocking metal panels that would slide back to reveal a window through which the witnesses would watch. On the far wall, in the corner, was a large metal box with a huge lever on it. Another guard with a rifle stood next to it, and two more guards at both the door Zane had come in and another door near the switch. Three thick cables ran out from the switch-box to a chair sitting on a raised platform in the middle of the room. Strapped into the chair and the electrodes was Billy Waverly Judkins.

The guards tensed; the one nearest to the switch aimed his rifle at Zane. Zane raised his hands to the level of his ribcage and said, “My name is Franklin Zane. I’m from the Governor’s office.”

He kept his hands raised. “Lower your weapon, Watkins,” one of the guards at the far door said.

“I’m here on behalf on the Governor,” Zane said as Watkins lowered the gun.

The guards said nothing. There was silence in the room except for a low, insectile humming coming from the switch-box. Then Judkins was turning his head slowly and Zane felt his stomach lurch as he looked into Judkins’ eyes and realized that at some point Judkins had managed to shake the blindfold off that he would have been wearing at the time of the execution.

Judkins grinned and rolled his watery eyes. “Afternoon,” he said. Zane’s stomach lurched again. Judkins’ voice had a vibrating quality.

Zane walked forward slowly. The guards tensed again but did and said nothing. Zane walked around to the front of the chair, his back to the viewing window. Judkins followed him with his eyes. The pupils were shaking and jittering very slightly on the bloodshot sclera. Judkins’ teeth were chattering with a minute sound. Zane stood in front of him and stared at him.

“Aren’t you going to say hello?” Judkins asked.

“My name is Franklin Zane,” Zane said. “I’m with the Governor’s office.”

“I heard you say that when you came in,” Judkins said. He grinned wider. “Did I get a clemency?”

Zane tipped his head sideways and stared. Judkins was a big man. The straps around his legs and arms looked fat and strained. His neck was thick. He had stubble on his cheeks and underneath his chin. His nose was bumpy and misshapen. There was a smell in the air; Zane couldn’t describe it. It did not smell like burning.

“No,” Zane said. “I’m afraid you didn’t. Not yet.”

“But he knows,” Judkins said. “Oh, our dear Governor knows what’s going on in this merry old slaughterhouse, doesn’t he?”

“That’s why I came down here,” Zane said. “To find out.”

“Verily, I say to you,” Judkins said, his voice deepening and his chest expanding as best it could in the straps, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

Zane stared.

“I am the One True Way,” Judkins went on. “He who renounces sin and bows before me shall find the light of the everlasting kingdom.”

“You believe you’re Jesus Christ, don’t you?” Zane asked.

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Zane looked up at the guards. They were expressionless.

“Bow before me, Mr. Zane,” Judkins said. “The time is close at hand.”

“What time is that?” Zane said.

“The end of the world is near,” Judkins said. “The end of all things and the reckoning of a great new day is upon us. Do not prostrate yourself before the throne of iniquitous pretenders but heed the Word and the Son of God. Do so in My name, for I am the light and the salvation.”

Zane shook his head. “I’m not here to debate theology, Mr. Judkins.”

Judkins’ voice returned to its normal register. “There is no debate.” His eyes shook and danced with a wicked, joyful gleam. “The die hath been cast.”

“I’m here on a –” What? What was he here on? A legal matter? An ethical one? He didn’t know. The Governor hadn’t known. Zane took a deep breath. “Are you in any pain?” he asked.

Judkins smiled a thin-lipped smile. “Not a bit,” he said. “Well, I’ve got a few cramps in my legs. And I have a headache and a backache because I’ve been sitting on a wooden chair for almost a day straight. But other than that, no.”

“You don’t feel any pain from the electricity?” Zane said.

“Not a drop.”

“What does it feel like?”

Judkins laughed. His laugh had an eerie quiver to it. “It feels like I’m on one of those massage chairs that shake and roll and help you get the kinks out of your back. How about that, Mr. Zane? I’m getting myself a massage courtesy of the state. All I had to do was –” His face darkened and he stopped.

“Do you understand what’s happening?” Zane said. “Do you understand how impossible it is for you to be sitting in that chair right now talking to me?”

Judkins perked up. “I am the rock and the sea and the thing that casts his intent over all men,” he said, grinning. “Through me all things are possible. Through me all things are made good.”

“You should have been dead about fifteen hours ago,” Zane said. “I’m not sure you understand this.”

Judkins shook his head best he could in the electrode cap. “Do not give yourself unto the temptation of the untrue portage,” he said. “Bring unto me your devotion and reverence and you shall receive that which men seek.”

Zane stared for a moment longer and then turned and stumbled in the direction of the door on unsteady legs. He threw it open and bolted through and scrabbled madly at the locks while the Warden and Frisk stared at him from the wall, dumbfounded. Zane got the locks open and swung the door and ran out down the hall with the Warden calling after him and he just barely made it to the door and stumbled outside before he vomited hot, thick vomit onto the cool dirt.


“We don’t know what else to do,” the Warden said by Zane’s car.

Zane stared off into the distance at the prison buildings.

“The wording of the execution procedure is very clear. Electricity will be passed through the condemned’s body until he or she is dead.”

Zane nodded. “I know.”

“We don’t know what else to do.”

Zane sighed and opened his car door. “All right,” he said.

“What’re you going to tell the Governor?” the Warden asked as Zane climbed into the car and plugged the keys into the ignition.

“I’m going to tell him what I saw,” Zane said.

“All right,” the Warden said. “Do you think he’ll issue a stay?”

“I don’t know,” Zane said. “I think it’s too late for a stay. I don’t know if it’s too late.”

The Warden breathed for a moment. “I don’t want to work here anymore,” he said at last, and he was suddenly a little kid in a big man’s suit.

“He’ll be in touch,” Zane said.

He let the Warden take his hands off the car door and closed it and started the car. He drove out and made a left on Route Five and drove off. Further back he could see Block G sitting squat and square in the prison yard. The wind blew and and the leaves crinkled across the road as he drove and it wasn’t until he was pulling into his parking space outside the Capitol that he realized he had wept the entire way.

Daniel Payne was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, where he is currently a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University studying for a degree in English literature. He has been writing since he was 6 years old.

Summer Sliders
Literary Friday
  • Jennifer Riley / June 29, 2012

    I have a law enforcement character whose last name is Watkins, an ancestral name. Concluded your title might come from the Bible, as used by Brahms in his Requiem, “Behold, all life is as the grass.” IRRC.