The Quality of Mercy (new short story)

I’ve always hated Johnny Cash songs.

Especially the ones about being on death row. “25 minutes to go,” or “Green, Green Grass of Home,” or the ultimate downer, “Long, Black Veil,” where the guy watches his lousy girlfriend visit his grave after she gives him up to judge rather than face her husband with her cheating. You, know that kind of stuff.

I really hate them now, because, it’s me. And I really have 25 minutes to go. Or 24 and some seconds. I have stopped looking at the clock.

What it all amounts to, my last supper–a rare cheeseburger, seasoned steak fries and Hawaiian Punch (hey, its my last supper, right?) and some four layer coconut cake all cleared away. The pastor in and gone, no family members to show up or wanna be human rights celebrities pleading my cause.

I was always told that in the end, you face God alone. I’m starting to believe it. In another 22 minutes, we should be on a first name basis.

“Hey, ready?”

It is Harvey Peterson, the jovial, so happy he makes you sick guard who I’ve known the last four years I’ve been on death row. He reminds me of a beachball….not that he’s overweight…everything about him is round…round face, roundish body and arms.

He is on the manic side, always making jokes in a way too loud voice. First you hate him, then gradually you give up the hate—it just takes too much time. Finally, you kinda like the guy. After four years, I’d given into his dominant personality and didn’t want to kill him when his joy and hilarity bounced my way.

“Hendricks? What about it?”

I looked at my erstwhile buddy, the best choice I’ve had in these four years of waiting, and give him a cheerful shrug. “As ready as I can be, right, Champ? As ready as any fellow who didn’t do it.”

Now other guards, the bad or burned out ones, (and there were many at San Quentin) would have said something sarcastic or cheap to show that they didn’t have time for my last minute quibbling. Like, “Everyone is innocent here,”

Peterson didn’t. He just stood there. His eyes full of his usual good nature, like he was inviting me, as a pal to go fly-fishing with him.

I got to my feet. Some last crumbs of the cake fell to the ground. I thought about reaching for them, putting them in my mouth.

15 minutes from now, the electric current will make sure I’m a mess. No need to worry about getting a citation from the etitiquite police.


The sensor card that the guards have instead of keys swished in the air, and my cell door clanged open. I looked around the solitary cell that had been my home. Funny that I would never be going back to it. Yeah, that did hit me. It had been home. The longest place I’d stayed in my adult life…at any part of my life, actually.

A brief flash of my upbringing, alcoholic parents, never able to keep jobs, climbing out of windows to skip rent, foster homes, then one jail after another until the ultimate screw up–being in the wrong place at the wrong time….which brought me to San Quentin…and in 13 minutes to certain death.

Only this one, the one they’re gonna burn me for, was the one that I didn’t do.

I stepped outside of the cell, and felt Harvey slap me on the back. “I’ve heard your story. It wasn’t you. It was some guy that you were doing weed with. You was in his home, and his girl, Loretta, came on to you. You tried to fight her off. The guy walked into the room, caught you, but it had happened so many times with so many fellas….you thought he’d kill you….but instead he killed her.”

“Yeah, that’s right.” I said. I tried to tell the jury that I wasn’t a woman killer. Now, there were some mean women out there, bitches really, but none I’d kill. Men, however, that was another story. I’d killed a few in my time. Men who cheated in poker. Men who tried to steal my money. Men who were just nasty and deserved it in my book. But I’d never killed a woman.

No one had believed me. And it really didn’t matter. Because in 12 minutes, I would be dead and wouldn’t be much more than a third or fourth page paragraph on the daily news. All the living I’d done, all the breaths I’d taken, every lousy heartbeat would be summed up in a damned crappy paragraph.

“So, what would you do if you could do things different?”

We weren’t walking, but it was okay, because the chair was only in the room next door. It would take less than a minute to get there. Less than a minute.

To tell the truth, I was only half listening to him, entertaining myself with my own internal monologue, which was, by the way, about the best friend I’d ever had. Once I got it to stop repeating the junk my parents, teachers and cops told me….we got to be pretty steady. I wasn’t that trouble making punk anymore. I had planned to sign up for my GED classes. Was on my way there when this happy-go-lucky dude stopped me and offered me some of the best weed that had been grown in LA for years. How could you turn an offer like that down?

I didn’t listen to my internal monologue that day, which was screaming at me to get the hell out of there, and go to the school offering the classes. I didn’t see anything wrong with one last smoke, before I turned over the new leaf. Unfortunately what happened at that house blew the new leaf totally out of my reach. And now I was here, with 9 minutes before none of it would ever matter again.

“Comon, tell me.” Harvey had that toothy grin. “What would you do?”

“Really?” I asked, returning his smile, “What would I really do?”

The grin got bigger, almost beautific. “Sure. Tell me. I mean what do you have to lose?”

Harvey’s logic was inexorable. I was so close to death I could smell it. It was the smell of hopeless, the smell of a trapped rat seconds away from the cat who would deliver the death bite. It was the smell of every sinking ship that had ever gone down.

“I guess I would not have followed that guy home. Or not lit up with him. Or when I saw his girl looking my way, I would have gotten out of there, let them laugh at me.”

There so many points of stoppage on that road of no return, I thought. How did one know until they actually got to the last one? And how much thinking was actually going on during the process?

“Good, good. What else might you have done?”

I looked at Harvey askance. Were we having a therapy session prior to death? The preist who had prayed for me hadn’t gone that far. He’d just prayed for my soul and for God’s mercy.

“Mercy?” Harvey said out loud. He started out walking then turned abruptly, almost so abruptly that I ran into him. I felt myself becoming irritated. I had never really planned out what the last five minutes of my life would be like, but I didn’t want them to be spent with a grinning buffoon.

“Yes.” Harvey breathed. He did a bit of a mini-tap dance with his feet and breathed out words that sounded very familiar.

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…”

“It’s Shakespeare.” He said as he finished. He closed his eyes briefly as if drawing strength from the words, or the moment.

“So, what does it have to do with me? I should die for what I did to the other guys, but I am innocent for this one.”

I didn’t want to say it out loud, but I wanted to start walking again. Face what lay before me in the next three minutes, the last minutes I would ever have.

Harvey looked into my eyes so deep that I felt like he’d taken a tweezer and pulled my soul out to look at it. “What if, at the last minute, the real killer stepped up, and took your place?”

I allowed myself a bitter laugh. That sort of thing was the stuff of television. In my whole life I’d never caught one break. Why would it change now?

“I believe you, Ryan Hendricks, because I was there. When you lit up at my apartment. When you tried to peel Loretta off you. I was watching. I pulled you out of there, and did what I had to do. But the neighbors saw you, not me. They thought I was at my security job at the bar down the street. Good ol Harvey, always made everyone laugh, everyone liked him….no one would ever believe it was me. It was too easy to believe it was you, a bum in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

I looked at him closely, and wondered why I hadn’t seen it before. It had been just over 5 years, the hair was a different color, combed a different way, but it was him. This man had been my guard for four years, an irritating, but passible companion as I ticked down the time to now… minute to go.

“Why do you think I took such good care of you? Kept you safe? Getting the job and getting assigned to death row was a trick, but I did the best I could to make it up to you…but now, I can’t let you take the rap for this.”

My mind was reeling. What would he do? Any second now, we’d be missed. I probably should have being strapped into the chair as we spoke.

I felt my arms being grabbed hard and held painfully tight. “Look at me, Ryan Hendricks. Look at me.”

I felt intense pain in my body, as if already feeling the electricity surging through me. It went dark. Just plain dark.

I felt water splashing all over me. An unpleasant smell under my nose. I opened my eyes. It was a guard that I didn’t know, but had seen around, possibly. “Harvey if this is one of your damn fool pranks, well, I’m not laughing. You’re lucky Hendricks didn’t try to find a way out.”

“What? I’m Hendricks…” I said standing up, shaking.

“No, you’re a hell of a clown, but you’re not a killer.”

Images of the last few seconds before darkness took me down swirled in front of my eyes. I wasn’t sure what was going on, so I decided to play along. “Where is Hendricks anyway?” I asked.

“You ought to know, you put him in the chair, then politely fell to the ground.” The guard said.

I looked around me, not seeing the dank smelling hallway next to my cell. This was the chamber and there, on the platform was the chair. In it, strapped in, and deader than I’d ever seen anyone, was my body.

“I don’t understand.” I said, wanting to vomit. “How….”

“Hey, no one ever likes to walk them to the chair. It was your first time. You’ll get used to it. And he was real good with you. Just went and sat right down. You know, I thought he would fight it. But I think he trusted you.”

I looked at the body, and for one second, it seemed to melt before me, and become Harvey. His eyes opened and he smiled.

“Funny thing, I thought Ryan Hendricks was dumb as a rock. But know what his last words were?”

I looked at Harvey’s face and smiled back. It began to melt again, re-shape….til I saw my own features.

“Was it something from Shakespeare?” I asked.

“How did you know?” The guard asked, surprised.

“Just figures” I said, and walked out of the execution chamber.