By Ed Nichols
Gladys Tillman sat beside her husband’s bed. He slept hard, snoring ever so often. Whenever he twitched, she would reach out sometimes and touch him. During the night he sweated a lot. He hadn’t vomited today, or had any diarrhea, and that was good. The end may be coming soon, rather than later, she thought. She got up and walked over to the bedroom window. She stared at the thick woods beyond their backyard. Her nerves had finally settled after three days with him in the bedroom, and now she had a new feeling coming over her; peace, and a calmness that she had not felt in a long time. “Thank God!” she said aloud, turning around to stare at him. “It won’t be long now.” She went back to the chair. She wanted to know if he could still hear her. “Do you remember our wedding, Boyd,” she said to him. She felt his pulse. It was weak, but steady. She put her hand on his head and felt heat.
Seventeen years ago Gladys Nix had married Boyd Tillman in a little ceremony at the Mt. View Baptist Church. The church was only two miles from Boyd Tillman’s house. His first wife had passed away, and he had courted Gladys hard within six months of his first wife’s death. Gladys was single and a school teacher in her second year at Clarkesville Elementary when she met Boyd. After their first date she was smitten with him. She liked his rugged looks, and the fact that he lived on a beautiful farm in the county; secluded, but with nice views of the mountains.
He surprised her by opening his eyes for a moment. “I…I…re-mem-ber,” came out of his thin, wet lips.
He nodded slowly, his eyes shut again. “Uh-huh.”
In a way, Gladys was surprised he could still talk—but then, knowing how strong he used to be, she was not surprised. And not surprised it was taking him so long to die. She had planned on it. “Uh-huh,” she said back to his face. “What else can you remember? About us?”
He opened his mouth, tried to talk and gagged—dry heaving. His legs twitched and he tried to raise his arms. Gladys had long since quit holding a pan under his chin to catch vomit. She knew there was not a morsel left in his body.
He moved both hands to his stomach and turned his head to her. “Pain…stomach…killing me.”
“Your stomach’s killing you, Boyd?”
A tiny slit appeared between his eye lids. “Ca…call…Harr…doc,” he said.
“Call Doctor Harris? Is that what you want me to do?”
“Okay,” Gladys said rising from her chair. “I’ll go downstairs and do that. Now you lay still—don’t try to get up.” Going down the steps to the kitchen, she smiled; there was no way on earth her husband could get out of that bed now by himself. She washed her hands at the kitchen sink, and fixed a glass of iced tea. She sat at the kitchen table, picked up the local paper and turned to the obituaries. She had a pad and pen on the table and, glancing at the paper, she sipped her iced tea and started writing Boyd Tillman’s obituary.
The idea of tormenting him when he reached this final state had crossed her mind several times. She reasoned it would be out of character for her—but not out of character for him, if the tables were turned. She worked for a while on the obituary, finished her tea and walked back upstairs to the bedroom. His breathing was erratic. She touched his forehead, and then ran her fingers through his hair, picking up loose hairs between her fingers. A few more hours like this and he might be bald, she thought.
She sat in the chair. Boyd turned his head to her and said, “Doc…?”
“Oh, yes. I almost forgot to tell you. Doctor Harris is sick himself. “
Boyd pushed on his stomach with both hands. “Pain…kil….”
Boyd moved his head slowly up and down. Gladys watched more sweat roll down his face and drop onto his neck and chest. The stench of his sweat and vomit and urine and soiled clothes seemed to be growing stronger with each passing hour. She went to the window and raised it. She would have to get Hattie Sims to come over after he dies and help her clean up the bedroom.
“Is it killing you as bad as a broken arm, Boyd?” she asked.
He turned his head to her. “Uh…?”
“An arm that’s broken in two places so bad that a person can’t turn it and use it like she used to. Reckon your stomach hurts that bad, Boyd?”
He opened his eyes, a puzzled look on his wet face.
“Or, how about a lick on the back of your head with a piece of stove wood? A hard stick of red oak. Does your stomach hurt as bad as that? But then you’ve never had a concussion, have you, Boyd?”
He continued to stare. “How about being locked out of your own house and having to sleep on the porch all night with the temperature below thirty degrees and sleeting?” She figured he may now have the notion something was happening against him. The glazed reflection in his wide pupils suggested as much. A somber realization was hopefully occurring inside his brain. She leaned close to his face and smiled. It was time to let him know the truth. “What do you think, Boyd, now that you’re at death’s door?”
He didn’t try to talk. Saliva dropped from the corner of his mouth. His eyes seemed to widen.
“Your time on this earth is almost over,” she said. She watched him try to raise his arms, try to turn his body toward her.
“You can’t get up, Boyd. You’ll probably be in hell in a few more hours,” she said.
His lips parted. “Wha…?”
“What?” she asked loudly. You wanna know what is happening to you?” Gladys leaned close to his face, ignoring the strong acetic garlic smell coming from his mouth. She needed to say something else, before he started having convulsions or lapsed into a coma.
“I have poisoned you, my beloved husband! You were once a wonderful man, for a short time after we married. But your evil, or your psychotic side, or whatever, came out and you were the most abusive man I have ever heard of. You made my life a living hell! Good bye!” Gladys sat back in her chair and waited. His eyes searched her face, puzzled. She looked away, having said all she wanted to tell him. She thought of Boyd’s first wife and wondered how she had died, what she had had to endure. No matter. He was getting what he deserves, and she would get whatever the law, and the court, decides she deserves. It didn’t matter now. “The victim has finally become the perpetrator, and yes, the executioner,” she said aloud. She was exhausted.
That afternoon Gladys was sitting in the kitchen drinking iced tea when she heard, and felt, a thump from upstairs. In the bedroom, she found Boyd on the floor beside the bed in a fetal position with blood draining out his mouth. He was dead. Finally. She sat in the chair for a while and looked at him. Thinking. About the few good times and the many bad times. She hoped the court goes easy on her—she could maybe teach in prison, if they didn’t decide to electrocute her.
* * *
The trial began three weeks after the grand jury indicted Gladys for Boyd Tillman’s murder. The courtroom was packed the first day and the District Attorney promised that it would be a speedy trial since the defendant, Mrs. Gladys Tillman, had admitted under oath that she had deliberately poisoned her husband. Holding a half empty box of rat poison up for the jury to see, he said, “This is what’s left in the box of rat poison that she used to kill her husband. This box was given freely to Sheriff Lawson as soon as he arrested her.”
Over two days, the DA and his assistant moved rapidly through the scenario that Gladys had outlined in her confession. But, he portrayed Boyd Tillman as a hard-working farmer and upstanding county citizen. The DA admitted that Tillman had on occasion showed a temper and a tendency to want to be in control of everything. “But the poor man had never done anything to anyone that warranted him being poisoned to death.” Then the DA spent two hours explaining, and showing the jury, with graphs and statistics on big sheets of paper sitting on an easel, the effects of arsenic poisoning on an individual’s body. How the slow, agonizing pain had racked Boyd Tillman’s body for days before he succumbed.
Gladys hired Bobby Joe Mason as her attorney. Bobby Joe knew her and Boyd somewhat, as he had fixed their wills a few years back and had handled some land Boyd had sold. Everyone in Habersham County respected Bobby Joe—even if he did take a drink occasionally. The rumor around Clarkesville was that Bobby Joe Mason, without a doubt, was the best defense attorney you could hire, if he was sober. And, if he was not sober, he was still the second best. Gladys placed her future in his hands, and told him every detail of her and Boyd’s seventeen year marriage.
The DA did not call Gladys to the witness stand. He had read the confession and deposition and knew that Bobby Joe Mason would put her on the stand and bring out many of the abusive details of the Tillman’s marriage. He of course would cross-examine her. He planned to reiterate in his cross-examining, and in his closing statement to the jury, that Gladys Tillman should have gone to the proper authorities if she was being abused. That no one has the right to take the law into their own hands. That she murdered her husband when there was no apparent and immediate danger to herself. He was confident in his ability to convey the importance of this basic principle. And he was not seeking the death penalty, but was asking for life in prison for Gladys Tillman.
Bobby Joe Mason had coached Gladys for several hours in his office. The fact that she was going to be telling the truth, he told her, was important. The jury would hopefully see that and have empathy for her. He told her that would be the key to winning the case—to have the jury feel that they could understand why she did what she did. And most importantly, they might have done the same thing, if they had been in her shoes.
On the witness stand, Gladys Tillman answered all of Bobby Joe Mason’s questions; reciting the details of her husband’s physical and mental abuses that she had endured. Several times the DA objected to Mason’s questions. Judge Burton overruled him each time. The last questions Bobby Joe Mason asked her concerned her right arm.
“Please hold up your right arm, Mrs. Tillman,” he said. Gladys held her arm up as far as she could, until her right hand was about even with her head.
“Is that as far as you can reach up?”
“Yes, sir. It is.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Yes, sir. It especially hurts when we have cold or wet weather.”
“And now, Mrs. Tillman, as a school teacher, don’t you write instructions and things on the blackboard for your students to read?”
“Yes, sir. I do. I did rather.”
“Since your husband shattered your arm in two places, have you been able to write on the blackboard?”
“No, sir. I haven’t.”
“Now, Mrs. Tillman, would you tell the jury what you did that so enraged your husband that he grabbed you, twisting your arm, and slinging you against the wall, and down on the floor in your kitchen, permanently damaging your right arm.”
“I…I burnt the biscuits. Forgot about them being in the oven, while I was fixing his eggs and bacon.”
Bobby Joe Mason had been watching the jury while Gladys talked. He turned and nodded to her and she lowered her arm. “You burnt his biscuits?” he asked.
Bobby Joe Mason walked over to the front of the jury box. He leaned over and placed both palms on the railing. Looking at the jurors, he asked, very slowly, and very loud, “You… burnt…his biscuits, Mrs. Tillman?” He let the words hang in the air.
“Yes, I did,” she answered.
There was silence until Judge Burton finally asked, “Any more questions, Mr. Mason?”
“No, your Honor,” he answered. “That is all.”
* * *
Gladys Tillman was found not guilty. It took the jury only forty-five minutes to reach a decision. She sold the farm and moved to Savannah, Georgia where she teaches in a private school. She still suffers physically, and mentally, from Boyd Tillman’s abusive behavior. Her right arm aches bad in cold weather and when it rains. Some folks say she got away with murder. Others say that Boyd Tillman got what he deserved. Either way, most folks say if you need a good lawyer, call Bobby Joe Mason. Sober or drunk, he’s the best.
Ed Nichols is an award-winning published short story writer, and journalism graduate from the University of Georgia.
Copyright © 2016 Ed Nichols. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
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