Sunday, January 31, 2010

Howard’s Last Wynter

By Roger A WIlbanks

"I told you before. I don't really remember much about that night. I came home drunk. I remember seeing her in bed with another man and then it all blurs. More like it smears, actually. I see images stopped in time. Snapshots. The one that sticks out the most is the one where he fights back. I guess something like an adrenaline rush kicked in there and made that one stand apart from the others."

"But you did kill your wife and her lover?" I asked.

"Oh yeah. No doubt. I have the snapshot of the hammer sliding back. I see the flash of the shots leaving the muzzle and I see them both lying there bleeding in shock and anger."

I paused the tape recorder as I lit another cigarette. This was the hardest case I have ever had and every day when I listen to this tape I am reminded why. The man whom I was talking to was named Howard Bayless. He was on Death Row for the double murder of his wife and her lover in his home 7 years ago. He is no longer with us, however. The State of Texas has already filled his veins with retribution but I was asked to interview him several times during his mandatory appeal to determine his mental state. He didn't want an appeal. He never once claimed innocence. He maintained from day one that he was guilty but the State has rules, especially when they want to kill you. Your tax dollars at work, I suppose.

"What brought her to that?" I asked when I resumed the playing tape.

"Dunno. Mainly I guess she just lost interest in me. You know what's funny? When we got married, I couldn't get that woman off my side. Anywhere I went, she was right there with me. Karen just wanted to do what I was doing. It was cute at first. It became annoying after a while, but we were in love so I just rolled with it, you know? You married?"

"No…not yet. I have a girl and…no. I'm here to talk about You, Howard, not me. Let's keep this focused."

"Look Charlie. I sit here day in and day out waiting for something, Anything to distract me from the fact that I am a dead man. The least you can do is indulge me in a little human connection here."

This shamed me into compliance.

"Ok, Howard. I'm seeing a girl now, have been for a month now. We get along and do things together but nothing serious."

"Do you love her?"

"I don't know." I was being honest. Something about the look in the eyes of the man in front of me made lying seem dirty. "We both seem to enjoy the company of the other, but there is nothing resembling fireworks. It's more like we're killing time with each other till something better comes along, you know?"

"There were fireworks the first time I saw Karen. Literally. It was a Fourth of July picnic. We saw each other from across a park. She had her kid with her. Had to be at least 200 people between us that didn't matter once we made contact. You know how they talk about Love at First Sight? It was like being hit in the chest with a hammer for me. I lost the sense of every direction save the one she was in. I even lost my breath for a minute there, that's how beautiful she was. She always claimed the feeling was mutual."

"I met Jasmine at a company mixer. She's a paralegal on your defense team. We started talking about you and your case and before either of us knew what was going on, we had exchanged business cards and had plans to go to a hockey game."

"Yeah, funny. Like John Lennon said, "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans."

"Was that Lennon that said that?" I asked

"I'm pretty sure it was but I can't be 100 percent certain. Does it matter, really? Lotta people get caught up in that. Mixing the messenger in with the message. Memorizing the passage but losing the meaning. Me? I just know that what WAS said was spot on. Does it matter if it was really Ringo that actually said it?"

"I suppose not in the long run." I said, "Did you two start dating then?"

"The first time, yes. It was awkward though. She was a stripper then, danced under the name of Wynter. She lived at home with her parents and her kid. That made going out a little difficult. I only saw her at her work and that was a scary place, let me tell you."

"I'll bet."

"She was doing it then." Howard said.

"Doing what?"

"Fucking them for money. I found out about it a lot later. Defense team dug it up for the trial but I wouldn't let them use it. No point adding dirt onto her at that point. I had already put six feet of it there. Something told me that was what was going on but I turned a blind eye."

"Did you ever see anything?"

"Nah. I just sat at the bar and chatted with her friends. I was the good boyfriend. Well for a while at least. I finally got sick of that whole scene and broke things off with her. About a year went by and for some strange reason, I called her up to wish her a happy birthday. To this day I don't know why, but one thing led to another and we were living together 2 months later. She was out of the stripper game and doing what she called 'Professional Domination". It had something to do with whips and chains and stuff or at least that's what she told me. I had my doubts but I believed her when she told me she wasn't having sex with the guys. That made it ok in my head and I could accept it."

It was hard then, I recall, seeing this intelligent, good-natured man before me and imagining the pictures I saw of the carnage he was responsible for on that November night.

"Did you two fight?"

"Rarely, but when we did it was a doosey. She would throw things. Dishes. Pets. Books. Anything within reach would go airborne if she redlined."

"Did you hit her?"

"Never." The question hit him like an insult. "I never raised my hands to her. Something like that just isn't ever right. Oh, I would stop her from hitting me, but never, never did I lay a hand on her. That was something the cops would not believe. Can you blame them though? I have seen the pictures of what I did. I have the odd recollection of moments from the event. But you have to believe me when I say I would never have done anything to hurt her."
"I believe you, Howard." I told the truth. This man before me was a kind man, gentle. He was a complete contradiction of the man who murdered his wife and lover in the heat of passion. It made it hard to hold what he did against him knowing that. Be that as it may, he did kill her, but he wasn't proud of it. Most men who murder their spouse and their lovers in jealous rages hold that up as a badge of honor. They think what they did was justified, but not Howard. He was ashamed of what he did and it's my belief that makes all the difference in the end.

"Well Howard, I have to go now. My time is up. I will see you next week."

"Take care, doc. Next time you visit, bring smokes though."

The tape stopped. My next week after that session was filled with court motions, legal briefs and loads of things I didn't really understand. I work within the boundaries of man's mind. The trappings of a courtroom just never seemed to make much sense to me. I was just the guy the defense team brought in to show the court where Howard's head was at. I answered their questions and prepared my report. When I got back to Death Row to see Howard for our last session together, something had changed. The guilt of his actions had done something to him. He was a different man.

"Morning, doc. You tell the State I'm sane enough to die yet?" He took a lit cigarette from me as I made myself comfortable on the hard plastic seat.

"Come on Howard. You know I'm not here to do that. My only responsibility here is to tell the State what's going on with you. I'm here to stand up just like some half-assed weatherman who has to look outside before he can tell you if it's raining or not. I'm just going to tell them what I see and hear, nothing more."

"But what do you think, doc? Do I have to keep living or do I finally deserve to die?"

"Let's talk about something a little less morbid, Howard, ok? When we left each other, you were talking about Karen. Let's continue on that track, ok?"

"Sure. One month, doc."

"Excuse me?"

"One month. Just before I killed her, we had a fight. Nasty one. Names called, dishes thrown. It was ugly. I left her then. I stayed away for 2 weeks. I wouldn't answer her calls or her emails. I was done with her. I even talked to one of those divorce lawyers from late night TV over the phone. All anonymous though, no way to track it. You see, something happened. She was fucking these guys for money and lying to my face about it. I couldn't admit it to myself, but deep down, I knew something wasn't right. It was eating at her though. Eating her alive. You see, doc, honesty was real important to her. All that lying to me about what she did must have been murder on her."
He laughed at his accidental pun.
"But I broke. One month before I killed her, I called her back. We met for drinks, we made up and we made love all night long. I swore things would be better and she did the same. But we both lied. She was working twice as hard and I started drinking heavy. We never saw each other except at bedtime. Then I got drunk, came home and saw her with one of them on our bed, doc…on our bed. I still can't see what she was thinking doing that in our house. I can only assume she just finally wanted it out in the open. She was tired of being with a sucker because what she was doing was obvious to anyone with even one eye open. My friends could see it but I refused to listen. 'She'd never lie to me.' I would tell myself. But she did and I'll bet she lost all respect for me because I never called her on it. Truth is I guess I just didn't care. Love will do that to you, doc, if you ain't careful. Regardless of what she was thinking, there she was on our bed going to town on some random guy. I snapped. I got my gun and made history. But you know what, doc? I've spent the last few days playing the 'What If?' game. What if I HAD never come back to her? What if I HAD just stayed away? What if I HAD made it so hard for her to take me back that she had no choice but to move on?" It was at this point that Howard started to cry. The emotions he was releasing had been dammed up inside him for 7 years and they were taking over. "She would be alive now, doc. She would be sitting home alone and miserable. She would be lonely and hurt but Goddammit she would be alive. I failed her with my weakness, doc. I opened that door and I took all hope away from the both of us."

"Howard, it's the easiest thing to do in the world to say if I had done this another way things would be different. Hell, that's how ESPN stays in business. Makes life hard is living with the decisions we make even when we don't like the results. So ok. Let's say you stay away from her. Let's say she is alone and lonely like you imagine her to be. Where are you, Howard? You are alone and lonely too. Do you like that image of yourself? You probably met someone new and the two of you hit things off, but everyday you are still thinking about Karen. That's not fair to Sally is it? That's what we'll call your new girl. How do you think Sally likes living under Karen's shadow?"

"You don't get it, doc. She would be alive. Nothing else would matter."

"Ok. I see where this is going. What would you say to Karen if she were alive now and sitting here where I am, Howard?"

"I dunno, doc. I would start by saying I was sorry things didn't work out."

"Then?"

"Then I would say I forgive her for lying to me. I know how that must have eaten her up inside. I would tell her to let that guilt go and get on with her life. I would hope she stopped doing what she was doing for her son's sake as well as her own sanity because I know that line of work gnawed on her soul like a mangy dog. I would tell her I will always care for her no matter what happened. I would never want to see her again though. I would tell her that day is done. I am sure she would understand. I would say she should enjoy life more and get outside but she would ignore that part. She was a bit of a recluse in that respect. Most of all I would beg her to move on and find someone new to laugh with and talk to. She thinks she is all alone now and that no one loves her, but she is never alone. No one ever is truly alone. Sooner she got that the better off she would be. Nobody in this world deserves to be alone no matter what they do for a living. I would ask her to stop punishing herself for the shitty hand life dealt her. " He stopped crying at this point. "But thing is, doc, I can't tell her any of that because I went back to her. All I can do now is die and beg her forgiveness from Hell."

"I thought you didn't believe in Hell, Howard."

"I'm in it now, doc. You think my situation's gonna improve much when they give me that injection?"

"Good point."

"Do what you have to Charlie, but I am done here. Make it happen, please." With that, he got up and left.

That is how my final interview with Howard Bayless ended. I turned in my report the following day and his appeal was denied. He was scheduled to die a week later. I sat in the witness room when it happened along with the friends and family of both Howard and the deceased as the State of Texas added another notch to its belt. Howard made eye contact with me as they strapped him in. He whispered 'Thanks'.

It was at that point that I cried.

The end.

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