People react to death in a lot of different ways. Watching the gallery of witnesses from behind the one-way glass of the executioner’s booth, I’ve seen fathers of victims pump their fists, but I’ve also seem them break down and cry. I’ve seen the wives of the executed scream in horror, but I’ve also seen them close their mouths and nod their heads, a long pent-up intensity evaporate and float away, their shoulders rolling toward the ground.
When I found my wife dead in the bathtub, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t scream, I didn’t fall to the ground. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many people die, but I just looked down at her in the bathtub and I felt a cold absorb me from my head to my toe. I felt my life pour out of me, pool on the floor and then run away.
Friday night, October 12, after returning from the grocery store, I found her. I knew she was dead before I touched her.
When I entered the room it looked almost serene, like she was resting. Tonya took at least one bath a week and fell asleep every time. But this time her eyes were slightly open. Her nose and mouth were under the water, no bubbles, and her left hand dangled over the porcelain edge. In shock, I took another step toward her, dipping my fingers into the tub before I studied the darkened lukewarm water.
Before I could examine her any further, I thought I heard footsteps and pulled back. Our son Michael was at Tonya’s parents for the weekend and we had no pets.
Suddenly trembling from head to toe, I slipped out of my boots, grabbed scissors from the bathroom counter and stepped into the bedroom. I listened for a few minutes, but the only sounds came from the tub. When I turned, she was still there, not barely alive, not resurrected—motionless, her body cooling in the air of the room. Whatever my wife had been, full of humor and an insatiable zest for life, she was suddenly just a slab of naked flesh. The coldest sight I’d ever seen.
I looked down at the milky red puddle spreading across the tile, inching toward the door. I thought, “This doesn’t look like suicide.” Then the same voice in my head whispered, “They’re going to think you did it.” Her skin was broken open around the bridge of her nose. Her blood dripped off of her nose into the water. The wound was beginning to cake.
I didn’t know what to do. Half of me wanted to break down, to fall to my knees and cry right there, to cry out my life until there was no more of me left. But the other half of me was thinking a mile a minute. I knew the odds. My alibi was a ten-minute jaunt to the grocery store. Murders within the home are perpetrated by the spouse sixty-three percent of the time. If you’re a husband and your wife dies in your home without a clear explanation, you’re the man until they can prove otherwise (and usually they don’t try very hard to prove otherwise). Innocent until proven guilty, but being married is proof enough.
I stumbled into the hall, down the stairs, and dialed 911. I should have used the phone in our bedroom or my cell phone in my pocket, but my wife was bleeding out, and all I could think about was how much my son’s world was about to change. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I had to call the police—no point in waiting.
“How long?” I asked the dispatch operator after I’d given her all the important facts.
“As soon as they can get there, sir.”
“How long!” I screamed.
“I don’t know.”
Even during painful, traumatic events, dispatch operators have no scruples in expressing their irritation. I’ve heard them huff, inappropriately cackle, and whisper a snide comment to a nearby coworker. This one sighed.
“I don’t know, sir. Ten minutes, twelve, I suppose, if the roads are busy.”
I hung up the phone, but before I could remove my hand from the receiver, it rang. I jumped. I figured it was the operator calling me back.
“Hello?” I said. I didn’t recognize the number on the Caller ID. “Hello?”
I heard breathing, one breath, two, three, and then ‘click.’ I looked around again, more paranoid than ever. I dialed star 69, but no one picked up. Nine minutes. Another minute wasted just staring at the phone, waiting for something, anything. There was something, a gut feeling that told me things were impossibly wrong. My wife was dead, killed, and now an anonymous call?
I tried to memorize the number but I couldn’t make sense of it. My head was running in a thousand directions. I could barely keep up, let alone memorize a string of ten digits.
I gave up, ran up the stairs into our bedroom and tried not to look into the bathroom as I crossed the room toward Tonya’s dresser. I’d never once in our eleven years gone through any of her things, but now I was a mad man. I dumped drawers and ripped clothes from the hangers.
Nothing but magazines, cosmetics, jewelry and a few books on child rearing that she never read but always intended to when Michael was born.
Five minutes, and sirens in the distance.
I opened the bedroom window and looked east toward the center of Hilliard, Ohio, my personal suburb of the Columbus metropolis. Tiny specks of colored light flickered in the distance.
The surly operator had overestimated.
I ran down the stairs and barely noticed the orange blob on the living room recliner, Tonya’s leather purse, oozing off of the chair like a Salvador Dali painting. I dug inside for her phone and remembered the vibration when I’d walked through the door a few minutes ago. It hadn’t hit me then, but now I replayed that scene as I crossed the living room, screamed, “Tonya!” and walked into the kitchen to set down the groceries.
I didn’t have much time, and I knew I’d only get one shot to get everything I might need. It might be the only evidence I’d have. I took the credit cards from her wallet, dropped the wallet back into the purse, and ran back into the kitchen where I snagged the Caller ID unit off the wall, unplugged it and then plugged the phone directly into the wall, to make it look like it had always been that way. I ran into the garage, flipped on the light, and jumped into Tonya’s ’68 Mustang. I checked the glove compartment: owner’s manual, lens wipes and an emergency fifty dollar bill. Under the passenger seat rested a maroon datebook small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. I’d never seen it before, and normally Tonya condemned anything not electronic, but it seemed mostly empty anyway so I threw it back under the seat. Best to give the cops something to find, I thought.
I had maybe thirty seconds left so I stuffed the phone, the Caller ID, and credit cards under the bottom of the lawn mower that sidled against the garage wall. I ran back to the door into the house, flipped off the light, and shut it securely behind me.