What Ails Us

The interviewer was already tired. His host’s ceiling fan spun too fast for its supports and seemed ready to detach from the screws. The dining room was large and connected to a larger kitchen with black marble countertops. He and the interviewee, a red-headed woman, sat on opposite sides of a barn wood dining table. The legs of the chair he sat in were loose from wear and creaked as he rocked. He tapped his foot and drummed his fingers on the table; he hated silence. Unable to endure the man’s restlessness anymore, the woman said, “All right, Mr. Price, I’m ready.”

  “Good,” he said opening a spiral-bound Meade notebook. “You know why I’m here, so let’s get straight into it.” He paused to give the impression of collecting his thoughts. “Do you hate him for what he did?” It was a calculated question, one he thought would get a reaction. A reaction, especially from the esteemed writer Glenda Smith, would be worth writing about.

  But Glenda was an adept interviewee who had been through this before. She responded without missing a beat, leaving Mr. Price unsatisfied, “I guess I should. But I don’t, really.” Her eyes were sharp. She slouched in her chair. She was the type who could engage with anyone as long as they kept personal distance. She continued, “Before we go on, I’d like it if we use his name.”

  Mr. Price nodded. “How well do you know Damien Casey?” He followed the question with, “Official reports say you were his client, but there’ve been rumors, too.” There had been a single rumor, but Mr. Price prefered the gravity of the plural. Every breath on Earth had a rumor about it, but people made mythologies about the scandalous, damned and unfortunate. Mr. Price was also open to the possibility Glenda heard something he didn’t — but it was unlikely; his ear was the closest to the ground for every story.

  She knew the rumor well. People’s penchant for imagining complex stories about others both fascinated her and made her stomach churn. “They say we were lovers, plotting a getaway or some shit,” she said. “The truth is simpler. I was just a client of Damien’s and I didn’t know he existed until then. But he must have known who I was right away.” The latter statement was new. She hadn’t said it in other interviews or when she testified in court. Mr. Price perked up to Glenda’s statement but she continued before he questioned her. “After going to the sessions awhile, I found out Damien was an avid reader. When we had nothing official to talk about, which happened a lot because of me, he would bring up best-sellers or other books he was reading. I didn’t think about it until later, but he must have read one of my books. It didn’t take long for me to find out that he did.”

  Mr. Price wrote parts of Glenda’s monologue in the notebook; he preferred to use pen and paper over a recorder. When he was younger — in his early twenties — he did an interview with an emerging mixed-media artist named Joseph Hernandez, who had a reputation for being verbose. This caused plenty of interviewers to misquote him, which led to editors chastising their writers. He was nervous to interview him, so he brought along a tape recorder to ease his doubts. After the meeting, Price didn’t have a single note of value, because he didn’t ask any good questions. He interviewed best with a pen in hand and paper on the table. He felt free to think then.

  “What do you mean you guys didn’t have a lot of official things to talk about? Were you just not saying anything?” Mr. Price asked.

  “Well, yeah. There were points in the therapy when we had to talk about why I was there, but I wasn’t ready to. So there’d be a bit of silence. Then Damien would clear his throat, like he always does before changing the subject.”

 Mr. Price nodded. “I’d like to talk about why you went to counseling. How did you end up in Damien’s office?”

  “My doctor recommended me to him, “ she started, “for — fuck. You know why. You were there in the courtroom. Why do I have to say it again?”
  “I apologize. That’s the way I work. I find there’s something liberating about stating the already-known.” He slumped back in his seat. Normally his intuition guided him in the right direction but he was unsure why it had steered him to a question to which he knew the answer.
  “Liberating for you, maybe,” Glenda said.

  “Anyway, how often were you going to sessions? What did you think of him?”

  “He was caring. He never forced me to say anything I didn’t want to. It was obvious he was intelligent, and he had a sense of humor that made heavy topics seem light.” She stood up, lit a cigarette and started to pace. “I started going in mid-February, three times a week. He always had room in his schedule for an emergency meeting.”

  “I know how you feel about the rumors, but did you ever suspect he loved you?” The question could never mean anything, given the circumstance, and would strengthen rumors if she said anything other than no. That was a shit question, Price thought.

  “I don’t know. It always seemed like a professional relationship. At least until we started talking about literature. Then it was more of a fan-boy-to-celebrity type,” she said after taking a long drag on her Marlboro. ”But, for the record, I don’t see myself as a celebrity.”

 The sun was setting. Mr. Price had been sluggish all day; it took him a half-hour longer to get ready, and even his noon walk dragged on. “Mind if we continue this tomorrow?” he asked, noticing she was tired, too.

  “Sure,” she said putting out a cigarette. “Tomorrow should be better.”  

  The following morning the local news station broadcast an hour long special about the planned execution. The judge announced he would move the execution to “as soon as possible,” which meant within a week.

  In the late afternoon, Price returned to Glenda’s home. He felt he would have to dance around sensitive topics and make sure not to coax anything out of her. She would likely be devastated. Anyone in her situation would be. They sat again under the wobbling ceiling fan. She didn’t look as distraught as Price imagined; she looked as put together — or not — as she did yesterday. “Did you hear the news?” Price asked.

  “Of course,” she said as she lit her first cigarette of the interview. “They’re going to kill the poor bastard. And, I don’t know. A large part of me believes that he doesn’t deserve it.”

  Price, with his notebook still closed, said, “I can’t tell you if he did deserve it or not, but that’s how the system works. You kill someone, and the government rehabilitates you for life or kills you. There’s not much mercy there.” He had work to do. There was a cover-page story just beyond her mouth, but the day already felt finished. Truth was, Price enjoyed Glenda’s company and wouldn’t mind relaxing in the kitchen trading bullshit stories for a few hours. As long as he didn’t have to work. After opening his notebook, Price said, “Yesterday, you said you went to Damien’s office for grief counselling. I would like to give you another chance to say it. You don’t have to if you don’t want.”

  “I was raped.” She was tired of the word looming without being said. Glenda Smith had told this fact to four people in her life. Once to herself the night after she was brutalized, the second to her doctor who recommended counseling, to Damien, and to the judge after the incident. Now she told Mr. Price directly, who was not altogether wrong about the liberating feeling. She knew the moment would remain fresh throughout her life. The damage was irreparable. Still, each time she confessed, the pain eased a little.

  Price fought hard not to retreat at her admission. He knew what happened, but hearing from the source was different. He wanted to do anything to soothe her, but that wasn’t his job; it never would be. He focused on the one the thing that wanted his company: the narrative. “Your husband, Ivan Smith, committed the … the act —”

  “Rape. Please just say it,” Glenda interrupted.

  “He raped you two years ago in August. Why did you wait to talk about it?”

  “At first I was numb, you know? Actually a lot of that numbness hasn’t faded. I couldn’t believe Ivan, of all people, could do something like that.” She paused. “I also thought no one would believe me. Like people would think I was a crazy writer seeking attention trying to get a writing opp. When I was finally ready to talk about it, I wanted to focus more on getting okay than convicting him. We had been separated for about a year, anyway. It just wasn’t on my mind, I guess.”

  “Last February you started your sessions with Damien. According to your testimony, you didn’t tell him about your rape until April, the same month as the incident. Was it hard to tell him?” Price wasn’t himself and had no energy to nudge her to harder questions. Maybe another day would be better. Also, despite Glenda’s insistence, Price knew she saw Damien as a friend.

  “How could it not be?” She said. “I was going to a stranger to tell him something I felt ashamed about. I don’t even know why I felt ashamed, but I did. I’m surprised it took me only two months to tell him. It took me almost a year of regular visits to tell my doctor, so two months felt like a flash. It helped that Damien was kind and we had similar interests. In another life we could have been friends.”

  “And when you told him, how did he react? Was there anything strange about him?”

  “He was gentle, like he always was. He let me know I didn’t have to talk about it right away, and only if I was ready.” She eyed her cigarette as she spoke. “Even though I mentioned it to my doctor, I didn’t tell him the details. Damien was the first person to hear every detail as vivid as I could tell; they poured out of me. Ivan coming off of work. Beating the shit out of me. Forcing me onto my knees and tying me up. Him using me; him laughing. What pissed me off the most was how quickly he returned to normal. Ten minutes after he untied me, he was sitting down and laughing at fucking Family Guy or some shit.” Her hand shook and she lit her third cigarette. “But Damien was gentle. Maybe because he was trained to be, but I think he was genuine. Shit. Listen to me talk about him like he’s already dead. Damien Casey is a good man.”

  “I think that conversation is best saved for another day. Let’s call it quits. I’ll come back tomorrow.” Price had been battling his exhaustion for too long. Despite his intent, he couldn’t stay focused as Glenda spoke. It was time for him to sleep, even though it was only 7:30. He wasn’t any more stressed than normal, and he slept as much as he always had — the exact same routine since he was 23. Still, the day wore harder on him. Maybe it was the high-profile work?

  Price drove home and turned on the TV as soon as he got there. He kept his TV fixed to CNN and only switched it for local news. He felt bad about his home after being at Glenda’s. Hers was a three-story beach-side property, and his was a shoddy studio just outside of the poorer parts of town. He lived alone.  He liked to imagine many people did, but most he thought of were people like Damien: the reserved type. He felt he didn’t belong to that category, but in trying to find points to refute it he found ones that pointed the other direction. He spoke when necessary and was otherwise content with his thoughts. Even at work the isolated hours were more enjoyable than the ones when he was speaking. The truth was, he was a quiet man that life and work forced to speak.

  Settled in the black leather couch with his feet propped up on a mismatched brown ottoman, Price thought of Damien’s fate. “Death penalty … seems rough,” he thought. He recalled details the prosecution presented.

  Before Glenda, Damien never counselled a rape victim. He was properly trained but inexperienced. Literature and movies brought Glenda and Damien close and their similar personalities sustained the bond. The relationship stayed professional; the few hours every other day was all they needed for their yearning of close friendship. Their mutual introversion ensured neither of them would go to see the other. When Glenda detailed her rape, Damien became maddened with sympathy.

   He had drawn up a plan the day after Glenda’s talked about her rape.  He wrote it out on a notepad in his office and didn’t bother to throw it away — the police found it intact on his desk later. He must have been of a sound mind to plan something out days in advance, was the prosecution’s theory. He went to the hardware store the next day to buy his weapon. He continued all his daily sessions. He had a motivation and a means to kill Ivan for seven days while still counseling Glenda, who knew nothing of it. Damien recorded his sessions and didn’t once mention the plan to her. There were no cell phone calls, and office calls Glenda did make were brief; they were never seen in public together. From the recordings, though, the defense used Damien’s indifference as evidence of his inability to grasp his plan. They thought he was crazy, or at least wanted the jury to believe it.

  Three days before, Damien asked an unknown man where Ivan Smith lived. He learned from Ivan’s neighbors — in the apartment he stayed after Glenda kicked him out — his entire routine and the fact that Ivan always came home drunk. Damien planned around that bit of knowledge. At midnight of the 20th of April, Damien drove to Ivan’s apartment. He waited for an hour until he saw Ivan drunk like a madman heading home. He waited 30 more minutes, but nobody knew why he waited so long or what he did. But his car, a black Honda Civic, stayed in the parking lot. The defense reasoned maybe Damien was trying to psyche himself out. At 12:30 he broke into Ivan Smith’s home.

  Forensic evidence told a story that no surveillance camera could. Ivan Smith was too drunk to wake up to the door breaking or to hear Damien’s heavy footsteps. Ivan slept in a twin bed much too small for his 6’5” frame. Damien stood beside him with an axe. There’s no telling how long Damien stood there, but the consensus was at least three minutes. Then he lifted the axe overhead and swung it down on Ivan’s neck. The first shot didn’t sever the spine and the second one missed it’s mark slightly higher in the neck. Blood splattered on the walls and on Damien and puddled on both sides of the bed. He swung again, liberating Ivan’s head from the body, then into Ivan’s chest. Damien, covered in blood, called the police and sat bedside in a puddle next to Ivan’s head.

  Price knew Damien deserved the death penalty just as much as any other murderer; he calculated every step with no remorse. Damien never admitted to doing anything wrong either. Whenever asked if he felt sorry, Damien said, “He deserved it.” Perhaps he did. Ivan was a rapist, even if some didn’t believe Glenda.

   The following day, it was announced that Damien Casey would be executed tomorrow. Glenda called twelve minutes past 10 to tell Price she didn’t want to interview but would be there for the execution. Price would be there, too. Damien chose death by electrocution rather than injection, an option made available in the state of Florida. Price thought Damien’s decision meant something, but an answer never came.

 On Friday, Glenda and Price stood behind a one-way window with an older woman and two thirty-year-old men. The woman was Damien’s mother; she had the same soft eyes and the two men resembled her. The family held their heads low as they waited, and occasionally, they would burst into sobs. The woman shook and eventually had to be held by one of her sons. Price avoided eye contact with the soon-to-be bereaved family. He was no acquaintance of Damien. He embodied “the press” to that family, but he couldn’t figure how to act. Should I be indifferent or should I express my sympathy, Price thought. An answer never came.

 A deep purple surrounded Damien’s eyes which were bloodshot. Prison had not been good to him. He looked already dead as the executioner strapped him to the chair. His exhaustion was self-inflicted but inevitable; now only death could cure it. Price looked at Damien who didn’t seem like a killer but rather a sad man who wanted to die. He noticed Damien’s gentle eyes that, despite exhaustion and tears, never became distant.

  The executioner offered Damien his last human right: final words. He said, “I wish my mother told me the opposite was also true.” The executioner pulled the lever. The body convulsed and then stopped. He stopped being Damien — was he Damien even after he died? Family teared up, and the mother collapsed and screamed. Glenda and Price left the building tearless but with sunken eyes that never completely went back to normal.

   In the courtyard in front of the prison Price asked Glenda a final question. “What do you think he meant?”

  “He told me a story sometime before I told him about my rape. He said as a kid he was constantly worried some stranger would come and kill him and his family. He was so afraid he refused to go outside and threw a fit if they forced him to. His mom told him one night, ‘Everyone is capable of good and of doing good things.’ Something about the statement moved him to going outside and socialize. Over time, Damien noticed how true his mom’s words were. He volunteered alongside convicted felons who were not mandated to do so. He witnessed drug dealers hand money and food to poor children. He wanted to bring it out in others, too. And I’m sure there are people out there that owe their inner goodness to Damien Casey. But I guess I’m responsible for him.”

28 thoughts on “What Ails Us”

  1. Confused here as I thought Austin had written it. Perhaps this could be made clearer or perhaps I have missed something.
    Wonderful story – although reading words your narrative unfolded in my mind like a film.


      1. Loved the story! The misunderstanding has come from comments posted below the story where you appeared to be congratulating someone and saying you wished you had written it yourself. Apologies for the error! I have obviously misread, or misunderstood!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I don’t do flattery Austin because I feel it is insincere. It is a compliment well deserved. I wish I could write like you – but then I suppose I would not be me! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

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