While I was still trying to figure out what to do with the mystery animal I’d rescued from the dumpster, cops were working my door like a speed bag, eager as hell to tell me my wife had been found dead in a guitar case. I opened up to stop the pounding and found three righteous knuckleheads perched on my porch, rocking back and forth on their shoes. One big, one small, with a medium-sized buzzcut standing in the middle. The two bookends were bright blue, wringing the hats in their hands real noble, while the middle guy was the porridge that was just “white” apparently, wearing the sharp suit, bright shirt with a starched collar, and a blood-red power tie that divided him neatly in half. He was clearly in charge. He looked me up, down, up, right, down, left, up, head twitching like a thumb memorizing a videogame cheat code. Because of this grim trifecta of foreheads furrowed like fists, as well as the rest of the insufferably officious body language being thrown at me, I knew immediately they’d come to report something horrible. Even though Angie hadn’t been missing long enough for me to be fully prepared for the absolute worst, I’d actually watched a movie or two in my life and knew this scene well. So, in that moment, my certainty that these three police officers were going to be comforted later by loved ones dutifully impressed with their noble task of delivering tragic news to idiots such as myself had eclipsed any shock to become my focus.
In the five seconds it took them to square up and give me the Always Sunny ocular pat-down, I’d already imagined a decade of their dinner-table conversations, and I was thoroughly convinced they got off on these sorts of assignments. It might be difficult being some guy dealing with a murdered wife, but holy hell, how about the poor souls who have to inform distraught civilians about their spouse, child, or dog shattered on the highway? I pictured the cops making sure their wives caught them staring pensively at the horizon, or into their shaving mirrors, a silent countdown to a sympathetic back rub or blowjob. Okay, sure, I figured their training meant these guys were reasonably interested in my reaction, too. But only if it was a reasonable one. And it never was.
Suspense was emulating from them, almost like an audible hum (though this might have been coming from a walkie-talkie). I knew from my previous job closed-captioning a thousand true-crime shows that I, as the husband in the equation, was no doubt the prime suspect. They were watching for me to fuck up. And the detective in the middle, with his bottom-of-the-barrel semiotic strategies of interrogation (red power tie pointing at his groin, for example) had this objective written all over his scowl, causing what could have been an innocuous encounter to be blighted by expectation. Blame them, not me.
So, in spite of my confidence clocking their motivations at 99% accuracy (at least), and my very real horror at the prospect of losing the love of my life, none of this mental chess stopped me from being the most suspicious man in the history of bad news delivered on doorsteps. I could feel the misdirected rage boiling up and over and ricocheting in all the wrong directions before I could stop it, even if I’d wanted to.
“Mr. James…” the small cop began. “We’re sorry to inform you that…”
Somewhere in the rumble of blood in my ears, I heard the words “wife,” “murdered,” and “guitar” rolling off the hot breath of this dude, and I had questions. But I couldn’t stop thinking how they were relishing their roles as harbingers of doom. What kind of person does this nature of work? And who needs three of them to do it?
I was really stuck on all this.
Mainly because I knew they were watching me experience something I’d always found excruciating to witness in others: when tragedy becomes an excuse to be a monster. And if there were two things that captioning true crime and the occasional shitkicker Bigfoot hunting show had taught me, it was that monsters were ridiculous. And that a guitar-and-banjo duel could break out at any moment. Also, human beings didn’t fit in guitar cases. Okay, that’s three things.
But since we have a little time right now with my eyes closed and the thunder of my eardrums obscuring the scene on the porch, let’s rewind to my first memory of the bad-reaction loophole I’d been cursed with forever. It goes back further but involves much lower stakes. In high school when I delivered pizzas, a co-worker got the mirror knocked off her car by some bump-and-run, and she came running into the shop yelling, “Call the cops, dummies!” But I hesitated, understandably wanting details, and she flipped out, upending the perfectly symmetrical pizza I was crafting, screaming inches from my nose. I remember thinking, “No way you’re this upset. You just wanted to trash my pizza ’cause we broke up.” See, I understood the urge to hurl a pre-cooked floppy disc of pizza dough across the room to see how it landed. And I understood that, in such a moment, you are hovering in a limbo of split-second understanding that you’re going to take advantage of your newfound, tragedy-induced immunity in case the opportunity never arises again. But what I didn’t understand was… you are also genuinely upset. So there on my doorstep, I finally appreciated why she’d launched my first geometrically perfect pie into a ceiling fan, and I opened my eyes and rubbed my ears red and ground my teeth in a vibrating crimson haze of despair that was still coherent enough to hope these cops gave me any reason at all to flip their metaphorical pizzas right the fuck out.
Later, I got more facts about the case, the horrible stuff, about how she likely survived in that guitar case for almost half a day, hogtied and folded up and running out of life while she listened to truck after truck piling the city’s trash over her. But in that moment at the front door staring at this real-life representation of an Ascent of Man evolution poster, I just really wanted to hurt these guys. Future blowjobs be damned.
I scanned the big one, with his all-too-enthusiastic hat wringing, his lumpy blue shirt making his matching necktie practically invisible and therefore powerless, and I imagined him using these encounters to explain away impotence, alcoholism, maybe missing his lumpen, mouth-breathing spawn’s big moment of sanctioned assault in a hockey game, probably when he hip-checked the first female player in the history of their school headfirst into the boards.
“When did this happen?” I asked, watching his mouth wriggling around so much that it practically ate itself, and now I was utterly convinced he’d definitely conceived a shitty, hockey-playing kid. I squeezed my doorjamb and watched my own knuckles turn as white as his face. I was extra strong in doorjambs, you see. Even though I hadn’t gotten to the point where I could do 500 chin-ups on the bar I’d hung in our sagging bedroom-door frame, today I was squeezing this wood so hard all three of them heard the cracking. Though I couldn’t be sure this wasn’t just my knuckles.
“Well, sir, we don’t know much,” the detective in the middle answered, holding up a hand to keep Lumpy quiet. “But due to blood pooling in her right arm and leg, as well as the necrotic tissue frozen to the hinges of the guitar case, we believe, at this time, she was killed in another location, possibly struck by an automobile, and, subsequently, brought to the garbage dump.
“No shit,” I said, not really asking, not really talking, just squeezing the door harder despite the cramps. “So, you’re saying she didn’t live there? At the garbage dump, I mean. So you’re saying you got cutting-edge forensics telling you her day didn’t start on a mountain of crushed beer cans and loaded diapers and gutted TV dinners? Thanks, supersleuth!”
“I’m sorry, sir, we’re still trying to ascertain…”
“‘Ascertain’? How about you stop trying to sound like some rent-a-cop on the witness stand bumbling over big words and just tell me what you know about my wife.“
“We understand that you’re upset.” The little one stepped forward, screwing his hat back on his pointed head to exert some authority. “And you have our word, Mr. James, that we will do everything in our power to…”
“Now, can you tell us…” Lumpy started to say over him, and at that I stepped completely out of my house and into their arena, eyeball to eyeball with the disheveled one now, and, oh shit, he didn’t like me in his bubble at all. But I figured I wouldn’t get another chance like this, to toss their perfect pizza into the fan blades, so I stepped even closer. Today was my diplomatic immunity, before my depression or their defensiveness took over. I’d always wanted to get pulled over speeding when my wife was going into labor. They’d say, “Follow us!” and put on the sirens, and we’d all break the laws together, pizzas flying everywhere. All of us trapped together in this bubble, impervious in a shield of rising crust. And dangling heavy on the vine of a bending skyline, a nuclear explosion of tomato-red goodness.
“Listen, please don’t use the word ‘power’ when you stand there twisting the sweat out of your lid,” I said, right up his nose. I considered a quick bite on the booze-busted blood vessels at the end of his beak, but I kept it together. “You stand there fantasizing how you can tell this story over pork chops to your halfwit family of hockey players, and still I have to endure making you feeling okay about making me feel bad?” What’s weird is I loved hockey.
The big one blinked at this, getting a little fire back in his face, remembering I was just some citizen disrespecting him, and he went for his mirror glasses to push back with some steely-eyed sovereignty. But a hand appeared on his shoulder, then his hand appeared on that guy’s shoulder, then on my own shoulder, then a couple more hands clapped over each other’s chests, and miraculously this impromptu game of Twister calmed everyone back down. I looked around and started counting this weirdly comforting Human Centipede of cupped hands and wedding rings, and now it was impossible to blow up.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven… wait, how many paws do these guys got?
“Sir, we know how upsetting this must be. But be assured, because of her pregnancy, we, as a result, now have ourselves, at this point, another homicide case to pursue.”
“How did you know she was six weeks pregnant? I thought autopsies took days.”
“This case is a priority,” one of them said, mouth not moving.
“Okay, let me ask you a question,” I said, then tried out a small shove against the big guy’s chest. He stumbled down a step, and the other two held up their hands.
“Okay, two questions,” I said. “When you guys run your mouths, how much do all those commas cost? More than bullets?”
“Do you think I’m stupid? Do you think I think they really scrambled some special fetus squad instead of the usual team of incompetents? Maybe I’ll follow you so I can watch you guys knock on five more doors and look sincere while you twist and fumble with your goddamn invisible ties. Or maybe we can just jump ahead to the TV screen that will read ‘Ten Years Later,’ because stay tuned, maybe you catch a break and finally catch a killer. Doubt it though.”
Hands were back on everybody’s shoulders but mine.
“Let’s go, Joe,” the small one said, pulling the lumpy one away. I watched them get into their car, the detective looking like he still had a lot to say to me. So I pushed my luck and trailed them to the cruiser, knocking on the window good and hard. I’d always wanted to do that, too. The detective stood with his door open, and the big lumpy cop, the driver, rolled down his window, cheeks puffed in frustration as he held his breath behind pursed lips.
That’s when I saw their hands hadn’t been clapping each other’s chests and shoulders to restrain themselves after all. They’d been covering up the electronic eyes of their body cameras, in case one of them snapped along with me.
A brave new world, I decided. And a whole new type of restraint.
“One last question,” I said. “Have you heard of the Flynn Effect?”
He looked at his partner. Of course he hadn’t.
“It was something my wife was working on,” I explained. “Something from her doctoral research. It means every generation is smarter than the previous one. And it means our generation cannot think in the hypothetical. My unborn child might have been able to do this, but we have no chance. And one thing I now understand is I’ll forever be unable to consider such hypothetical situations.”
The big one shook his head at all this shit and started the car.
“Don’t leave town, Mr. James,” the detective said finally, pausing for effect as he climbed in. “Someone will be by to talk to you again soon.”
I smiled. Even though I’d just found out my wife was dead and I was now beginning the second half of my cursed life where everything that made sense for half a minute when we were together and happy would no longer be recognizable and my previous life was just some bad movie we saw once where we had no interest in the ending. I smiled mostly because I could do something in that moment to make a cop feel foolish. And how often do you get the chance? The smile would cost me months of guilt and incrimination, and, eventually, something even worse, but it was probably worth it.
“Are you actually telling me you can’t imagine anyone not thinking in the hypothetical!” I yelled like a fool as they drove off.
They didn’t get the joke, and I may have laughed. Angie would have laughed. But laughing is something you don’t do after cops tell you your wife was found dead in a guitar case. Something you definitely don’t do if your wife died carrying your child. But lost innocence and laughing at cops was a combination as natural as chocolate and peanut butter, and, more importantly, there was no way I would let them record me crying.
But I didn’t have to worry. They were gone, and any dashboard cameras or body cameras or covert plastic eyeballs would miss any honest reaction, even if it was no different from a manufactured one, or if I had no idea what that has ever looked like.
From for She Was Found in a Guitar Case by David James Keaton. Used with the permission of the publisher, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. Copyright © 2020 by David James Keaton. Pre-orders for She Was Found in a Guitar Case, which comes out on July 6th, are currently available exclusively through the publisher’s webstore in digital, paperback, and hardcover formats. All hardcover pre-orders will also receive an author signature plate and a lovelock.