It’s June in Sacramento–let the “Summer Budget Swelter” begin! Eleven days until the Constitutional deadline for a state budget from the Legislature, and triple-digit temperatures loom.
How about a little literary relief from my short story collection, MATTERS FAMILIAR, to tempt you to read it in its entirety? You can do that in paperback or eBook or purchase a digital version of the story by itself. Your choice; instructions at the end.
Today’s excerpt is from “Boys Will Be Men.” Facing his third decade, Chad Wilcomb is three years divorced and sharing custody of a six-year-old son. His job as a reporter for a local indie news weekly is hanging by a thread. Charlie Don Morton, a convicted murderer on San Quentin’s Death Row, wants him to tell his story and witness his execution. It falls to Chad to expose how and why Charlie went there; in the process, he risks learning a lot more about his own circumstances, and maybe his fate.
Chad sat and propped his feet on Tim Ireland’s desk—he, the Sacramento Independent Review’s News Editor and his boss.
“What I got from his mother’s letter was that he saw the piece you did on the temple bombers and decided you were fair.” Tim grinned. “Go figure. Maybe he used to be a ‘subscriber.’“
“Okay—so Charlie Don Morton, convicted local rapist and murderer, wants to give our little lefty rag an exclusive before he gets put to sleep at San Quentin in three months. That about it?”
“Not entirely. Two conditions.”
“One, he wants the piece to be ‘first person’ — you know, ‘Charlie Don Speaks.’ Your ruminations and purple prose in sidebars only. Two, he wants you as a media witness.”
Chad used his best Ted Baxter voice. “Won’t giving a felon an ‘open forum’ besmirch our journalistic integrity?”
“Listen, wise-ass. This is a no-brainer, a coup, if we can pull it off. Set all your other stuff aside. I’ve already gotten the Department of Corrections’ new guidelines. You work on whatever phone calls you need and a visitation request, and I’ll get started on getting us into the media pool. There’s one slot for a weekly and Morton’s local, so we should have a shot. A guy I used to play racquetball with works in CDC’s legislative office, which might help.”
Any lingering bonhomie evaporated.
“Get on it, Chad,” Tim said.
Chad leaned into Tim’s doorway. “Here it is. Under the Department’s media policies, non-’random,’ face-to-face interviews and recording devices of any kind are prohibited. Inmates can make outgoing, recordable collect calls ‘according to their privilege group’—Death Row being the most restricted. I can visit only after I get CDC Form 106, ‘Visiting Questionnaire,’ from Morton, return it, and wait for the prison to approve it. Realistically, that’ll take four to six weeks—just on their end.”
“I should write him immediately,” Chad continued, “since their search of a Number 10 envelope and a one-page letter for ‘contraband’ also can take four to six weeks. I’ll give him the Review’s number, and you’ll authorize all charges. I’ll ask him to try to call me at least three weeks in a row, since each call will be monitored and restricted to 15 minutes, and I’ll ask his permission to record the calls. A pal of mine teaches speech at Sac City. He’s willing to send Morton a blind syllabus on public speaking—Chad glanced down—’Tell Them About Yourself: Organizing Your Thoughts into Words.’ I’m hoping he takes the hint and works on what he wants to say ahead of time. Okay?”
Tim shrugged. “Hey—with any kind of luck, we might wind up a test case. Go for it.”
Sitting in the visiting area, waiting for the condemned man to be brought down, Chad’s annoyance at the prosaically absurd visitation rules and the going-on two hours of intake and boredom had given way to idle review. He paged through his mental photocopies of research and notes. (He’d had the foresight to ask for and get his prison-issue paper and pencil already, before he started to sound too much like a reporter.) Four hundred twenty-seventh of 601 sentenced to die in California since 1978. One of 595 on Death Row, of 578 men at San Quentin. First scheduled execution since Robert Lee Massie, March, 2001. Convicted November 1988 for the murder and mutilation of a prostitute in North Highlands the Christmas before. Time on Death Row, 13 years, one month—slightly above average.
He’d spent the drive to San Rafael replaying the 40-plus minutes of Morton’s taped telephone calls. Turned out Charlie Don really had just wanted to tell his story—coherently, unemotionally, and without much prompting. Born and raised, Antelope, CA. Only child; single, working-poor mother; absent father. Few friends, but friends. Slight, but apparently witty enough to deflect bullies. Undistinguished but untroubled academic history, through high-school graduation. Stab at community college, then unremarkable succession of mid-wage jobs. No overt romantic entanglements, until his gift of holiday intimacy to himself went wrong. He recounted the crime sadly as her obituary, not his life-episode. Perfunctory appeals he endured passively and finally shook off as so much bad investment advice. Lastly, he was sorry she was dead because of him. End of story.
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