The Death House

 
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Paul Linczak

Art by Alex Morel

 

My sister was murdered on her twenty-first birthday. She went to a party her friends hosted at the so-called Drama House on her campus—home to the theater program, for which she’d designed some sets—and decided to walk back to her dorm alone, at night, via a riverside path that was not well lit. She never made it home.

A devout Christian, she abstained from dancing and alcohol. She kept mace in her purse. She carried an EpiPen for a mild peanut allergy. Given who she was, I can only assume she went to the party because she liked the people there, and she took that path home because she had walked it at night many times before. I don’t imagine she was scared.

Her body was found a week later, wrapped in plastic in a crawl space inside an old house about a mile from campus. The police found bones from five other bodies stuffed behind walls or buried in the yard. (Except for a skull that was found in a rusty bucket in the killer’s bedroom, a reporter noted on the local TV news.) The other victims had been dark-skinned prostitutes or junkies, whereas my sister was a blond, white, communications major. For her, media and police attention had been intense.

The media used the killer’s full name: Stephen Tarsus Sollanger. I remember thinking it didn’t have the evil ring of “Hitler” or “Dahmer.” I could see it on a business card or election ballot, and that’s probably the future his parents—upstanding, white, middle-class people—had dreamed for him. They had died in a car wreck in the late 1980s, and he’d inherited their house, a narrow, three-story, Queen Anne–style home built before the First World War. By the time cops arrived to search for my sister, it was so rotted, so redolent of death, I wonder why it wasn’t the first place they looked.

 

This all happened sixteen years ago. I was twenty-five. I’d just been accepted to NYU Law, and I was riding high. Then a few days later my father called to tell me Becky’s friends had reported her missing. I’ll never forget my hurried heart as the news sank in, this bunker-buster of reality aimed at my core. I assumed she was dead. I don’t know why, for me, the worst outcome surfaced first, but I’m sure other people, in similar situations, have surrendered to the same fear. Still, I felt guilty, like I’d betrayed my sister.

I wish I could say I was close to Becky, that we talked constantly, shared secrets. But after I’d left for college in Massachusetts, her friend took her to an Evangelical conference that featured minor celebrities and Christian rock bands. She was in high school. She converted. Soon after, she emailed that she had dumped her boyfriend because he wanted to sleep with her. I replied that she couldn’t expect everyone to share her new faith; if she didn’t want sex then she should stick to born-again types. She never responded. Instead, to our parents’ bafflement and my own, she became super Christian: summer camps, missionary trips, the whole deal. Suddenly we spoke different languages. A gulf opened between us.

Her autopsy revealed she was sexually violated after she died. I had to hear from the medical examiner’s report multiple times—in court, in the media—but it only made me vomit the first time, which was a month after the funeral. I was in my Washington Heights apartment, trying to hear my father on the phone over reggae from a stereo outside. He tried to play it off like good news: she hadn’t had to endure it; she was already gone. Apparently that was Sollanger’s thing, playing with dead bodies. I put my phone down, tears in my eyes, and knelt before my toilet. I’d teased Becky for her chubbiness as a kid. Now I thought about her pale skin that bruised with alarming ease—from sitting a certain way for too long, from the most harmless bump against furniture. The thought of some psychopath having his way with her body . . .

I told myself: get it all out now. Cry, retch, whatever you need. But you cannot do this every time, because this story is never going to stop being told.

And sure enough, sixteen years later, I’m back in Ohio, going over it all again.

It’s strange to be in my parents’ house now that my father is gone. He had a heart attack three years ago. My mom seems too small for this brick colonial in Mariemont, a rich, quaint old suburb of Cincy, and I have a feeling she’s going to sell it. I’m reminded of a Beckett play I saw once in which a man relocates to evade memories of lost love, which of course only makes the pain worse. You can’t escape heartache so easily. At the same time, I don’t know how my mom manages here. I can’t enter what is now a guest room on the second floor without seeing it as Becky kept it—pink canopy bed, Rembrandt prints on the walls, a plain gray hamster cage on the floor. (The room always smelled faintly of hamster pee and wood shavings.) Nor can I sit in the first-floor den without seeing my father on its brown leather couch, reading Popular Mechanics, frameless bifocals slipping down his nose, belly surging with each breath. Reading, for him, was a full-body activity: he would rock back and forth, shift to the seat edge, touch his face. When I eat in the sun-filled kitchen I expect him or Becky to burst in, picking up where we left off, a never-ending conversation.

 

“A lamp gives feeble light from my nightstand. I’m sitting in bed in my old room. The execution is nine hours away.”

 

My mom has never spoken publicly about Becky, though the media and various lobbying groups have all asked her to take center stage. She prizes privacy like it confers status—something she’s always aspired to have. So when the press camped outside our home she and my father turned to me. I was going to be a lawyer, they said. I’d know what to say. I figured I was protecting them. I read statements I typed, hands shaking for the cameras. Twenty-five-year-old kid.

My mom’s hair is white now. Invited to witness Sollanger’s execution, she turned to me. Once again I was asked to represent the family.

Nicole, my wife, was surprisingly for it. Like me, she’s against capital punishment, and can spout all the stats on it you want. She’s a program director at Amnesty International and has published articles on criminal justice.

I told her about Becky on our first date. She asked about my family, but I would’ve told her regardless. We met for drinks in a hotel bar in Tribeca with a fireplace and well-heeled out-of-towners. It was my first date since Becky had died two years before, and though I was surrounded by law students desperate for stress relief, I hadn’t had sex either. I just couldn’t. The first night Nicole stayed over I wanted to enjoy our intimacy, but at the sight of her naked I fell off a cliff, imagining myself debauching a corpse. I was so repulsed, both by the thought and my inability to prevent my brain from having it, that all excitement was lost. That’s why I told Nicole: fair warning. She assured me she was full of life and desire, but it took years of frustration and shame before we had our daughter.

In that way, I too am one of Sollanger’s victims. A secondhand kind. Nicole has embraced the idea that seeing can heal, and watching him die will bring me fully back to life. When I tell her she’s being hypocritical, she says sometimes compromise is a sign of maturity, of taking the world as it is, which is, in its own way, a first step toward change.

I’m not so sure. Maybe I’m too vain to admit I’m wrong, but I think my mind can follow a path to healing without being led by my eyes. I know I’m disturbed by what happened to my sister, and I feel guilty about how little I offered her, how I’d wasted the time we had. I know I need to accept these difficult feelings and move on. There will be nothing magical about watching Becky’s killer die.

More practically, the execution was scheduled for a Thursday. I’d have to miss work. I’d have to explain my absence to our fourth-grader, Ella. Generally, I don’t like lying, but Ella doesn’t know yet about her dead aunt.

And yet I said I’d do it. Maybe out of morbid curiosity. This is, after all, the most extreme thing my profession does, though I never pursued criminal law—something my friends expected, the victim’s brother snaring murderers for a living. No, I work in trusts and estates. Sollanger has given me enough grisly detail for one lifetime, and I’ve spent too much time pondering the questions he inspired. Like, did he sneak up on Becky? Did he strangle her there on the path? Or did he pretend to be friendly, in need, and lure her back to his house? Was that the first time he saw her, or had he stalked her? Had he known her? These questions haven’t been answered. His idiotic defense (he represented himself) was that someone else deposited the bodies when he wasn’t home. DNA evidence said otherwise, but he still pleads innocence. Maybe I’m hoping his last words will reveal some truth. Or maybe I want to see if Nicole is right. For all of my high-minded opposition to the death penalty, I was pretty happy when bin Laden was killed, I won’t lie. Maybe I’m looking for happiness here, too.

It’s an odd feeling, these maybes, this fog in my head.

A lamp gives feeble light from my nightstand. I’m sitting in bed in my old room. The execution is nine hours away.

 

My mom sits at her kitchen table, eating grapefruit and browsing the real-estate section of the Enquirer. She’s a retired agent. Plus, the front page has Sollanger coverage. She gives me a loving smile when I walk in. I scan the pantry (what to eat before watching someone die?) and settle on toast and black coffee. My mom is an introvert, and I don’t know what to say—I’m not going to unload my anxiety or blurt out how sorry I feel for her—so we eat in silence. She’s still at the table when I leave.

It’s a two-hour drive to Lucasville, and I haven’t driven in more than a year. From the Upper West Side, where Nicole and I live, it’s just two stops on the 2/3 train to get to Times Square, near where I work. We don’t leave the city often enough to own a car. Out here, though, tell someone you don’t have wheels and you’re an alien. That’s what I feel looking at all the buttons in the black Hyundai I rented at the airport: city versus country. I don’t belong here. I never did.

I wonder, passing towering trees on Route 32, if people involved in executions tell themselves they’re moving a soul from one plane to another. In New York, I see an occasional subway prophet; here, I see religious bumper stickers and churches left and right. I can see why Becky converted—hang out in a barbershop, eventually you get a haircut—but if she were here, would she really see death as just a door to more life? If I were pulling the plug on someone, is that what I would tell myself?

I’m convinced Becky lived the only life she got. She isn’t looking down from a pink cloud, flexing wings. I wish she were.

And what did I know about her life? Was she in love? Happy? Excited about her future? I don’t know.

I’m wrong: she didn’t convert because she lived in a barbershop; she was trying to fill the hole I left in my wake.

I pushed her onto the path that ended in Sollanger’s arms.

I tell myself to ditch these thoughts. I have a role to play. A sign says “Lucasville—Next Exit,” and my grip relaxes on the wheel. I’ve managed, although traffic is sparse at this hour and Lucasville, it turns out, is a small town.

On the road to the prison I see protestors. They’re all ages and races, men and women, silently holding handmade signs behind a littering of candles and flowers on the roadside. EXECUTE JUSTICE, NOT PEOPLE. DON’T KILL IN MY NAME. They’re maybe twenty altogether. Die-hards. I can’t help but admire them. A short distance away are news vans, transmitters lifted like birds stretching their necks.

Across the road, the prison spreads, tan buildings, green acreage. Except for the fences and guard towers, you could mistake it for a community college. It’s picturesque, really, in the morning sun. It’ll be a beautiful September day, warm and dry. I drive past a brown sign that says SOUTHERN OHIO CORRECTIONAL FACILITY and turn into a full parking lot. The fencing hits me hardest. Barbed wire, imposing. I’ve never set foot in a prison. My stomach feels like a withered balloon.

 
 

Inside, a small reception area has cushioned chairs lining the walls. Two men and a woman, all Black, sit and wait. I approach a desk where a Black woman in a brown guard uniform sits behind Plexiglas, like a cashier at a theater box office. She has a Caesar haircut with orange tips. I tell her my name and show her my ID. She consults a list, then picks up her phone. After a few minutes, a beefy white young man appears. He resembles Jake of Body by Jake fame. He tells me his name but I don’t remember it. He says he’s with Victim Services, welcomes me, and tells me I’ll be taken to a separate waiting room.

Because I’d read the materials the prison sent, I left my phone in the car. The only things I declare to the guards at the metal detector are my wedding ring, belt, wallet, and keys. I pass through soundlessly, and then Jake takes me down a windowless, cinder-block hall to a room behind a blue door.

Inside, a Black man sits at a rectangular conference table, hands flat on the wood surface. Like me, he wears a button-down shirt. He is heavy and on the older side, but I can’t guess how old. Bald on top. Mustache. I know he has been staring at his hands, and there is a wary, defeated look in his eyes. I nod and fill a chair across from him. Jake closes the door.

“I’m Gerald,” the man says. I decide he is probably an IT guy who has had to introduce himself at countless meetings. I tell him my name.

“I’m here for my cousin,” he says.

“My sister,” I say.

He nods somberly. I want to ask if he is the only family left or just the only one willing to come, but chatting seems wrong. He goes back to looking at his hands. He doesn’t seem happy to be here, but—I don’t care if this is selfish—I’m glad he is. I’m not alone; I have an ally.

 

The door opens. A thin, brown-skinned man walks in, wearing a navy blazer and yellow tie. He carries a clipboard, wishes us a good morning, and says he is Julian from the prison’s public relations office. From his accent, I guess that Spanish is his first language. Then Jake walks in. They’ll escort us to the death house, Julian says. His black hair is parted on the side, combed, shiny with product. As he talks, he holds his hand out and presses imaginary piano keys. He explains that six reporters will share our viewing room under a strict order of silence. There will be no cameras or phones. On the other side of a wall will be the inmate’s witnesses. At no time will we see them. Once the execution is complete, we’ll return to sign papers. We’ll have the option to make a statement to the press in the prison’s media center. When Julian asks if we understand, we nod. When he asks if we have questions, we huddle beneath a blanket of nerves.

To get to the so-called death house, we walk outside. Gerald favors his left leg, so we go slowly. Because our waiting room had no windows, I get a taste of what it must feel like to be locked up, to feel daylight as luxurious. Suddenly I feel flush with good fortune—low cholesterol, freedom, dividends accruing in multiple accounts, a wife and daughter missing me. Tonight’s weather forecast matters to me. I’ll get to experience it.

The death house looks like a two-story storage facility. Flat-roofed, windowless, tan brick. It’s surrounded by grass, except for a blacktop drive that leads to its entry: two doors atop a brick platform with stairs on either side. In front of the platform is a big blue scissor lift. For removing the body, I realize.

Sollanger is in there.

I follow Gerald up the stairs. Jake opens a door and we walk into a muggy little hall. Then he guides us through another door into the viewing room. It’s dark except for light that spills in from the execution chamber, which I see through a large window. Julian brings us past a black dividing wall. On the left side of the wall are three empty chairs where Sollanger’s witnesses will sit. On the right side are three for us. Gerald takes the chair nearest the dividing wall. I take the one next to him. Jake and Julian leave.

Before us is the padded table where Sollanger will die. Restraint straps dangle and armrests poke out. It lies on two metal columns bolted into the floor. “Chamber” seems wrong; the room has a bland, almost corporate feel, with white cinder-block walls and fluorescent lights overhead. A small black clock hangs on the center wall. To the right is a phone and a microphone with a long, stretchy cord. At left, there is a large mirror. It hides the room from which the chemicals will flow. Replace the gurney with desks and I could see telemarketers toiling away in this space. Or a couple of reporters.

The Supreme Court has already declined to hear an appeal. The governor has said he won’t intervene. The only drama, I think, will be whether the thing is botched and I end up watching Sollanger writhe. It’s happened before. Prisoners shout in anguish. Sometimes it takes forever.

My mouth feels coated with dust. I tell myself I can still leave, but I know I won’t.

I want to see this.

I hear footsteps, then chairs scraping floor. Gerald doesn’t strike me as prone to outbursts, and I’m certainly not, but it’s probably good that there’s a wall. I don’t want to endure a look from a priest. For the moment, I want to be alone with my thoughts. I hear reporters shuffle in behind us. One sniffles. Another flips through a notepad. I stare straight ahead.

What I do for my clients prepares them for death. It’s at the heart of all their paperwork, investing, legal protections: this yawning apocalypse toward which they’re headed. Me, too. I’ve tried to look away (I don’t even have a will, believe it or not), but it’s been staring me in the face my whole life. What will be the last thing I see, a ceiling like this? Fluorescent lights? Is that why I want to see this, to get a preview of my own end? To be reassured that it could be as easy as falling asleep? Or to be reassured that, just maybe, Becky’s end wasn’t something I need to feel so terrible about? But I don’t feel reassured. It is terrible. I imagine what it must be like to know the exact hour ahead of time, and I think I’d be terrified.

 
 

When the clock says nine the brown door to the chamber opens. The first person through is an older white man in a black suit, white shirt, and red tie. He resembles Harry Truman: short, good posture, small eyes, thin gray hair. He must be the warden. Behind him is a stout young guard in brown uniform. He grips the bicep of the man behind him—Sollanger. Two guards follow them into the room.

My stomach wrenches. The last time I saw Sollanger was at his sentencing, when, despite his patchy brown beard, he’d struck me as childish: pale and skinny and with a cowlick. He’d looked at us with bright eyes as if grateful for our interest. Now he is bald, clean-shaven, and heavier. As the guards remove his cuffs and guide him to the table, I don’t see any light in his eyes. His face looks scarred and worn, with a hammock of fat under his chin. His name had not conjured evil for me years ago, but now the sight of him does. I wonder if I’m trying to shield myself against what’s about to happen—it’ll be easier if he’s not human.

Stepping onto a stool, Sollanger views his audience. I don’t know how well he can see through the glass. Though our eyes don’t meet, my forehead burns. Then he turns, sits, and swings his legs onto the table. Two guards ease him back and strap restraints across his arms and body. His head is near me. A man and woman, each white and wearing a suit, enter the chamber. The woman grabs a tube that emerges from an opening beneath the mirror. The man inserts a needle into Sollanger’s right forearm and the woman connects the tube. They wear latex gloves. There is no sound while they work.

 
 

I stare at Sollanger’s face, which I now see in profile. His flat nose, prominent cheekbone. A bluish vein in his temple. He eyes the ceiling, breathing calmly. Does he think about what landed him here? Is he thinking about Becky? Does he, too, believe he’s about to see an afterlife? Or does he simply observe an orange water stain in the ceiling and lament the ignominy of it all?

Beside me, Gerald swallows hard. I want to hold his hand. For his sake and mine.

The catheter team leaves with a guard. The warden looks at the remaining guards. One stands by the door and another by the viewing window. Then he lifts the microphone from its wall mount, switches it on, and stands where Sollanger can see him. When he talks, his voice carries thinly through speakers screwed to the wall behind us. I wonder how many times he’s had to do this.

“Stephen Tarsus Sollanger,” he announces, “the people of the state of Ohio have sentenced you to death. Before your sentence is carried out, do you wish to make a final statement?”

Sollanger licks his lips. The warden positions the microphone.

“Can God create a buckeye so heavy he cannot lift?” Sollanger says, his voice surprisingly high and youthful. He looks at the warden’s perplexed face and adds, “More weight.”

When Sollanger gazes at the ceiling again, the disappointed warden switches the microphone off. Gerald looks at his lap and shakes his head. I have to admit: it stings.

The warden nods at the mirror, and I know deadly chemicals have started to flow. I don’t know what comes over me. I leap from my chair and bang on the glass. I hear gasps. The warden looks up, alarmed. “That’s all?” I shout. “Is that really how you’re going out? With defiance? With quotes? What right do you have to be defiant?” Sollanger, already fading, moves his head in my direction but closes his eyes, like a child who won’t respond to his parent’s calls to get up for school. “Don’t close your eyes!” I say, pounding the window. “Do you hear me? What was the last thing Becky said? Do you hear me?” Someone puts a hand on my shoulder. I hear a different someone saying, “Sir! Sir!” But I can’t stop. “What was the last thing she said? I came all this way!” Sollanger’s skin turns crimson, his hand shivers. The warden gestures, speaking to a guard. Soon there are hands on both of my shoulders. “Would you even understand if you could hear?” I say. “Did she say she loved me? Just answer that: did she say she loved me? Nod if you understand!”

A guard pulls a yellow curtain across the window. Our room goes dark. The people who’ve been trying to pull me away—Jake and a guard—take me by my arms and force me to the back of the room, among the reporters, who stare at me, concerned.

Gerald takes a deep breath and exhales loud and slow. “Good,” he whispers.

I don’t feel good at all.

When the curtain is pulled back, the warden is beside another old white man in a gray suit, wearing latex gloves and standing over a motionless Sollanger. The warden raises the microphone. “The inmate is deceased,” he declares. “Time of death was 9:24 a.m.”

I have another few seconds to stare with watery eyes at Sollanger’s face. Then Jake says, “Come with me.” Angrily, he and the guard lead me out into daylight.

 
 

I take a detour on the way back to my mom’s house. I have time before the flight that will bring me back to Nicole and Ella, whose absence I feel like a stomachache, and I can’t deal with my mom just yet. I know the look she will give me, hoping for details, conveying the awfulness of our story. Will the press report my outburst? Will my mom hear about it from TV? Either way, I don’t have it in me to narrate like I’ve just been to one of Ella’s school plays. I don’t feel like talking at all, actually. Unlike Gerald, I left the prison without facing the press.

There’s a tremor in my spine.

What would I have said, standing before reporters?

I thought I might feel sorry for Sollanger. No: I was hoping I’d feel sorry for him. That’s the feeling hiding like a tiny flame in my fog. I don’t need to be told he felt happiness and sadness, tragically lost his parents, wanted to be loved. I know all of that. But on seeing him strapped, diminished, put down like a dog, I wanted sympathy to well up in me. And it didn’t. His last words didn’t help, but still. It’s strange that I can put myself in his shoes and not feel that emotion. I keep searching for it, driving back toward Cincy. I don’t know what it says about me that I can’t find it. Does that make me normal?

I asked Sollanger the wrong question. It’s not whether Becky loved me—I know she did—but whether, despite the distance between us, she knew I loved her, that my cold heart was capable of it. Or maybe that my heart isn’t so cold.

 
 

For where I’m going I don’t need a map. Soon I’m driving down a block of three-story houses left and right, porches with wicker chairs, American flags, faded lawns. A postal carrier in blue uniform lugs a satchel of mail over her shoulder. AC units jut from windows. An older man pulls groceries from the trunk of his sagging Buick. When I get to the end of the block I park by the curb and get out.

Becky’s grave is on the other side of town. But this is the place that draws me now, a corner lot of patchy grass and dandelions, a gap in the neighborhood. I think of it as her final place, where my memory of her remains. Usually, I struggle to find Becky’s face among my frothy memories, but now I clearly see her round nose, blond bangs, slightly droopy blue eyes—my mom’s eyes. Her teeth looked too babyish for her age, tiny spaces between them. I don’t want to lose this image of her, though I know I can’t make anyone see her the way I do. To Ella, she’ll only ever be a story Daddy tells.

The house was razed years ago. I don’t know who owns the property. The city? A relative who can’t sell and won’t build? Nothing indicates that Sollanger lived here, but I’m sure everyone around here knows. Parents must whisper to each other, warn their kids to stay away. Maybe they’re worried there are more secrets to unearth. After all these years, it’s still redolent of death. I want to post a notice: HE’S BEEN GONE FOR YEARS.

Someone in a noisy red Toyota drives past, eyeing me, a question on his face. I must look like I’m posing for B-roll for a 60 Minutes segment, leaning against my car, staring at nothing. Or maybe, in the driver’s eyes, I’m the dangerous one. Whatever. I guess I’m not normal. The emptiness of the lot—weeds, stray trash—feels good. And the sun, all of its rage, feels so calming, I don’t care what anyone thinks. I could stand here forever.

 
 

Spring / Summer 2024



Paul Linczak

Paul Linczak earned an MFA from Syracuse University, where he was a Cornelia Carhart Ward Fellow in fiction. His writing has appeared in the Carolina Quarterly, Fiction International, the Saint Ann's Review, and elsewhere.



Alex Morel

Alex Morel was born on the island of Manhattan but spent most of his childhood on the island of Santo Domingo, where he learned how to climb trees, swim, and ride a bicycle at an early age. His photographic work, which flows along the boundaries between the deeply personal and topics of social concern, is exhibited widely, both nationally and internationally. His editorial work focuses on collaborations with cultural institutions and international aid organizations. His body of work Relaciones y Relatos is a meditation on family, intimacy, and the emotional and psychological connection between people and places. It was recently published as a limited edition book by ’Cademy. Alex received his BFA from St. John’s University (NY) and completed his MFA at Rutgers. He is a graduate of the International Center of Photography (ICP) Creative Practice Program, and is a full time faculty member in the Department of Art & Design at St. John’s University. You can follow him on Instagram: @alex.morel.01



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