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Love and Death in the Sunshine State
The Story of a Murder
By Cutter Wood
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When a stolen car is recovered on the Gulf Coast of Florida, it sets off a search for a missing woman, local motel owner Sabine Musil-Buehler. Three men are named persons of interest—her husband, her boyfriend, and the man who stole the car. Then the motel is set on fire; her boyfriend flees the county; and detectives begin digging on the beach of Anna Maria Island.
Author Cutter Wood was a guest at Musil-Buehler’s motel as the search for her gained momentum. Driven by his own need to understand how a relationship could spin to pieces in such a fatal fashion, he began to talk with many of the people living on Anna Maria, and then with the detectives, and finally with the man presumed to be the murderer. But there was only so much that interviews and transcripts could reveal.
In trying to understand how we treat those we love, this book, like Truman Capote’s classic In Cold Blood, tells a story that exists outside documentary evidence. Wood carries the investigation of Sabine’s murder beyond the facts of the case and into his own life, crafting a tale about the dark conflicts at the heart of every relationship.
Love and Death
The Story of a Crime
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2018
This unspeakable crime that lies between them is only the consequence of their ordinary comings and goings, of an unkind word here, a disappointment there, but it lies on them as heavily as any vice, as murder.
There is almost nothing that is not brought to a finished state by means of fire.
—Pliny the Elder
I never judged anybody who didn't deserve to be judged.
1: Convalescence in the Greater Tampa Bay Area
2: In Search of Another
3: The Idea of a Woman
4: The Dark Side and the Other Side
5: Impulses Diverted
6: The Worse Truth
7: Before Everything That Happened Happened
8: All the Lives
10: Ballad of the Estranged Husband
11: Explicable Phenomena
13: The Confidence of Friends
14: A Disagreement
15: What Lights a Fire
16: Laurel and Bay
1: Convalescence in the Greater Tampa Bay Area
The island is about seven miles long. Nowhere is it higher than ten feet above sea level, and at its widest, it is hardly a thousand yards across. It floats like a shinbone in the Gulf of Mexico, so long and flat and narrow that when seen from a distance, the land hardly interrupts the surface of the water.
Still, there are houses on Anna Maria. Several thousand people live there, and many more rent bungalows or rooms so they can spend some portion of their year in such proximity to the sea. The back of the island is laced with dead-end canals, and though you have to drive to Cortez, over on the mainland, to find anyone who actually fishes for a living, the island's many boats and docks keep the idea vivid. When the tide goes out, the cement walls of the canals reveal a crusting of algae and oyster shells, and at dawn someone is always motoring for deeper water. One might as well fish. There isn't much else to do.
The motel remains in my mind exactly as it was that first January: small and dreary and bright. A few pale-yellow buildings squatted in the sun while above them a handful of spindly palms nodded in conference. In a cage by the office door, a green parrot carried on its endless and solitary conversation. Aside from myself, there were only two other people present, a teenaged girl at the reception desk erasing answers from a crossword, and an old German woman folding towels severely in a latticed hut by the pool. The room I was given was sparsely furnished. In one corner, a small black refrigerator rattled off the minutes of the afternoon. A comforter splotched in pastels had been spread across the bed, and lying there, I could almost reach out and flush the toilet.
My college graduation had occurred a few months previously, a celebratory event that had left me in a state of highly animated confusion. In all my years of education, in that succession of desks, in the thousands of cumulative hours stationed before them, and in the countless fancies I'd entertained there, head turned, eyes drawn through the window to the trees beyond, I had somehow failed to foresee that moment when, dressed in a black cap and gown, I would no longer be going to school. During that abortive Floridian vacation, ostensibly a visit with extended family, I spent much of each day adrift in their talk, conversations that passed through various topics but eventually returned to the essential touchstones of real estate and physical ailments and the weather up north. At some moment, someone said we had better hit the beach if we wanted to catch the sunset, and as I walked along the sand trailing those familiar figures, I had the sensation of a return to childhood. The flatness of the sea, the incessant back-and-forth of the waves: these seemed to have been called up from another time, and as we picked our way around the ruins of sandcastles, with the waves measuring out the hours, I felt an acute uneasiness. Sidestepping the dissolving turrets and towers with their seaweed flags, I thought I saw in those shapes the futility of all human efforts, and by substituting human for my, I was able almost entirely to sidestep as well the uncomfortable topic of my own futile efforts.
There had been no place for me at the family house, so I had taken a room at the motel. I spent the nights on my own, taking long forced marches up and down the streets, and sitting on my bed with a book or the local paper and a Styrofoam container of fried mullet, maligning the future that refused to coalesce warm and graspable before me. The utter inanity of the trip was crystallized by a visit to a distant relative in St. Petersburg on our final day. An old Italian man, he concluded the tour of his home by walking me out to the dock. The bay stretched out before us, and a large blue heron cocked its head at our approach.
"She comes every day," he said. "It's my mother's spirit." He reached out a hand. The bird turned one eye on the empty palm, spread its wings with disdain, and flew off across the water. He shrugged. "Usually I bring capicola."
Toward the end of January, I left with no intention of ever returning to the island or the state, and this would have been the case, I think, if some months later I had not received in the mail a clipping from the Anna Maria newspaper. A grainy color photograph showed a few palms outlined against a mass of fire. Sent by my mother, it was a story about the burning of the motel where I'd been a guest.
The evening of the fire had been unusually cold, according to the article. There was a strong wind, and the sky was empty of clouds. As the sun began to drop into the Gulf, the water turned bronze, and a woman driving home didn't understand at first how the sun could be reflected so brightly in the windows of the motel. Only when she drew near did she realize it was flames.
As happens sometimes at the lower latitudes, it was dark before anyone realized, and when the fire department arrived shortly after seven, one of the motel's buildings was wholly engulfed. The roof groaned. The palms crackled and swayed. The wind came in steady off the water, carrying smoke across the island, and for blocks around, the air had the sharp smell of melted plastic and polyester. Their gear clanking, a few firefighters walked the perimeter to assess the situation, while the rest began the work of unfurling the heavy hoses and loosening the hydrants' caps. A crowd had already begun to form: couples out for a sunset stroll, retirees on their way home from an early dinner, children on bicycles and scooters with nothing better to do. Soon a car from the sheriff's office arrived, and a thin deputy began asking the onlookers, for their own safety, to step back, please, and allow the crew to do its work.
The rumor of arson always attends a fire, and this was no exception. The crowd murmured, and when a van pulled up from the local TV station it was clear the reporter hadn't come to tell a story about an accidental blaze. The deputy smoothed the air with his hands. This was a fire, nothing more and nothing less, and there was not yet any reason to believe it was a case of arson. But, he said, you had to admit it was suspicious, considering the circumstances.
The circumstances, in the most immediate sense, were a white 2000 Pontiac convertible. It belonged to one of the owners of the motel, a woman named Sabine Musil-Buehler, and it currently sat in the sheriff's impound lot. It was not a particularly nice car, but it contained a good deal of blood, and this, combined with the fact that the woman had been missing for nearly two weeks, gave a certain amount of credence to the more macabre fantasies of the crowd. As the fire department began sending sprays of water onto the building's roof, an elderly woman still dressed in her pajamas declared that she was frightened and was leaving the island this instant, and for a long while after, she continued to make this declaration to anyone in earshot. It was hard not to stay around and skim the gossip. Who had set the fire, after all, and more importantly, why? For a time, the onlookers pursued these questions, picking up the various theories, turning them this way and that, and putting them back down again. But it was a cold night for Florida, and windy, and getting late, and there are limits to what reasonable people can be expected to ask themselves after dark. A little past eight, the fire chief declared the blaze under control, and the people, in ones and twos, began picking out paths home along the puddled road. A whole town runs to be present at a fire, as Hazlitt notes, but the spectator hardly exults to see it extinguished.
2: In Search of Another
Before I can begin to explain the fire at the motel, I need to set out a few notes on the months preceding it, the summer and fall of 2008, when, with high anticipation, I left my job waiting tables and enrolled in the graduate program at the University of Iowa as a student of creative nonfiction. I arrived in Iowa City early one morning in August 2008 feeling an ecstasy that now seems to me to presuppose endeavors of great idiocy. A quick overview of my belongings illustrates the lack of forethought with which I approached my new life: a pair of jeans, a pair of sneakers, a number of collared shirts of the loose-fitting mainsailish variety still popular in the hinterlands of Pennsylvania, a toothbrush, an exact replica of Charles Dickens's traveling desk and a wholesale box of Alka-Seltzer (presents both from my woodworker father), a dull kitchen knife, two dozen identical black notebooks, all blank, and an elaborate oak four-poster bed, acquired at a rummage sale, which I quickly discovered would not fit up the stairs to my apartment. And in an act that far too accurately encapsulates the delusional nature of both my romantic and literary expectations, I spent my first hour in Iowa sawing my bed into pieces.
That day, having piled the pieces of my bed in the middle of my apartment and swept the sawdust off the front stoop with my foot, I set off to explore the city, heading first, as seemed natural, for the river. I followed the lacy shadows of a line of sycamores, taking in the academic buildings, the meadowy greens, the solitary beaver chugging upstream. I eyed the long-legged silhouettes of the women's crew team, who even at that early hour were already hauling in their boats and hosing the thick sludge of manurish grime off the gunwales. Then, turning my steps back toward the city, I passed quickly through the few blocks of shops and bars downtown and walked, as I have always loved to do, down the alleys of the residential neighborhoods. In the unkempt backyards of late summer, a rose clung to the side of a garage, a melon ripened in the sun, and a boy and his sister played alone with an axe, and even in those first hours, I thought I saw in the place, in the shape of its houses and the largesse of its sky, a sense of proportion entirely pleasing to the eye. I climbed the only hill, a mound of dirt at the top of which sat the charming prairie bungalows of the professors, and standing on those red brick streets, I momentarily attained something that was not quite a vista, more a sense of pleasant and gentle removal from the life I was about to begin living. I stood looking down toward the city and imagined myself, acclaimed yet charmingly, almost heroically, humble.
The apartment I'd rented was on the second floor of a vinyl-sided Victorian at the corner of Fairchild and Dubuque Streets, and I had rented it for the sole reason that it possessed a turret, which seemed to me so emblematic of the artistic mantle I was to take up that months prior to moving I'd begun using the house as my return address. In my turret, I assumed my position at the Dickens desk, spread open a fresh notebook, wrote the day's date at the top of the page, and, with windows looking in every direction, meditated heftily on the great work that no doubt would begin to emanate from me at any moment. In this position, I was able to witness the very ebb and flow of university life. My turret was a sort of poop deck on the sea of the student unconscious, and already on that first day, as my own thoughts quickly proved barren and dull, I allowed myself to be drawn out into the lives of those walking below: a woman struggling to roll a purple suitcase over the uneven sidewalk; a man on roller skates; my landlord, a nearsighted lawyer, talking to his mother on a cell phone. Late that evening, in a prelude to what was to become a nightly ritual, a young couple walked home on opposite sides of the street, shouting "Cunt!" (him) and "Pussy!" (her) at one another until, a block beyond my apartment, they reunited in Bergman-Bogart fashion beneath a flickering streetlamp for a cephalopodic embrace, the slopping sound of which, at that distance, by holding my breath, I could just hear.
Looking back on my notebooks from that time, I am filled with a throat-clearing flush of chagrin. When I see again the exuberant young man in heavy orthopedic-looking tennis sneakers, installing himself with his pen and practiced scowl in the front window of a coffee shop, devoted to the great conversation of literature with such impatient zeal that he could hardly string two paragraphs together, it is as if, looking at some old photographs, I've discovered I had a lazy eye in elementary school. And indeed, in all the many pages I filled then, there was barely a sustained thought in evidence:
Along with milk, I am thinking of writing about the war in Iraq.
Or, after finding an earring in a pool of blood on the sidewalk:
Why is it that blood always seems like it should be cleaned up?
Or, the closest I ever came to prescience, this koan-like fragment:
The great discrepancy between what comes to me and what I write down is
I had no inkling at the time, but I was that classical caricature, a devotee less of writing than of imagining, of holding thoughts in an ideal illiterate state, where they seem to shudder with the promise that, once one actually takes up the pen, immediately vanishes. Those first weeks, there was a great deal of writing in my notebooks about the behavior of the sparrows that squabbled over crumbs outside the cafés, and patiently transcribed carnal dreams in which I played a starring role, and lengthy descriptions of my meals (the corn-on-the-cob odes, while somewhat wordy, are not wholly without merit), but there was little that surpassed the length of a paragraph.
At times, circumstances arrange themselves in perfect concord with our desires, even if those desires remain obscure to us, and within a few weeks of my arrival, as I began to feel the need to escape from Iowa and the life I'd embarked upon there, I received a voicemail message, which proceeded in the emotionally oblique manner so natural to my family:
It's your dad. Hope you're writing up a storm out there. I just wanted to call and let you know your grandfather's not doing well. He stopped eating, and it looks like he won't hold out much longer.
Otherwise, everything here is proceeding pretty much apace. We're working on getting your grandfather's house back in shape, and there hasn't been any trouble since I started the resettlement program. At first, I was just taking them down to the river, but then I started thinking they could probably find their way back, so now I'm driving the squirrels across the river and dropping them at the top of the mountain. I took two gray ones Sunday and a red one Monday—the red ones, as you know, are particularly wily. It's only two miles, but I'm hoping the river's enough to keep them from coming back. I don't expect they'll try to swim it. Of course, I wouldn't put it past them to use the bridge; although it's fairly exposed, that's just the sort of thing they'd do.
It does always make me nervous, driving over with them in the trap in the back seat. I haven't heard them plotting revenge yet, but any moment I figure I'll look in the rearview and see a squirrel head suddenly pop up—you've seen that look they get in their eyes—and that'll be the end.
A great sigh.
That's really the disadvantage of a hatchback—no trunk to keep squirrels in.
I had a dream last night that woke me up, the kind of dream you'd have when your dad is dying. Then I couldn't get back to sleep, and there are these couple of lines of a poem—all my long drives I get these words sorting themselves out in my head—and I just laid there, not sleeping and rolling these lines around, and then I started thinking about cleaning out the attic. I figured with squirrels living there for the past forty years, there'd be walnut shells about two feet deep, but now that I'm up here there aren't even two thousand, I bet. Maybe twenty-five hundred.
All right, bud, sorry to bend your ear so long. We're going to bring your grandfather back from the hospital this week so he can die at home. I hope you'll come for the service. The walnut trees are losing their leaves. Why don't you give a call tonight at dinner so you can talk to your mom.
Having driven nearly fourteen hours across the plains in a rented car, I arrived in Muncy, Pennsylvania, a few days before the funeral to find the clouds being hauled in piles across a wide turquoise sky, and the wind blowing yellow beech leaves down the highway ahead of me. At the end of Main Street, where the curbs disappeared and the sidewalk abruptly ended, my grandfather's house sat on its hump of clay above the river, shaded by walnut and ash trees. The brick walls and white trim, scaled with moss, gave it the look of a place that had moldered through a century or two and intended to go on moldering for a few centuries more. The house was empty when I arrived, doors open so that the wind swept down the narrow front hall, through the rooms, and out into the backyard, and in some corner a radio had been left on and was playing a tinny big-band tune. I followed a low chuck-chuck sound into the grove of lilacs and raspberry brambles behind the house and found my mother standing on the back porch.
"Your father's in the crawl space," she said, nodding at a small dark doorway halfway up the side of the house. It was a room hardly tall enough for a child to stand up straight in. It contained, as my father later termed it, "the walnut motherlode," and while we couldn't see him from where we stood, every few seconds a shovelful of walnut hulls flew from the doorway and landed in the yard.
My mother held a small coffee cup, part of my grandmother's old green-and-white Corelle set. She'd filled it three-quarters full with gin. "Can you believe this?" she said, nodding up toward my dad. "I can't believe it. He's shoveling walnuts when he should be making funeral arrangements. This looks just like a big pile of shit." She sipped meditatively, then called up at the house, "Jim! This looks like a pile of shit down here, you know." She sighed and drank again. "I couldn't find the martini glasses. It's nice to see you, honey."
In the twenty-four hours that preceded the funeral, my father absorbed himself in a flurry of senseless activity. He ripped out all the closets in the house and began to put up new drywall, bought and returned a series of dressers, mowed the lawn, harvested beans by flashlight, purchased a chain saw, and ironed a single tie over and over again. And he left behind him in every room he visited something that he'd inexplicably been carrying: one of his many tape measures, a pistol from the Civil War, a box of lead soldiers, the chain saw's crumpled instruction manual, handfuls of rusted square-head nails, sketches for a calendar that, by a series of rotations, could be used forever, his good shoes.
The morning of the funeral, the sky opened up suddenly, and the assembled family sat trapped in the summer kitchen watching the rain pour down. I had just received my first pair of eyeglasses, and every object seemed to stand out with an almost crystalline clarity. Limbs of walnut and lilac, their bark mottled with lichen, had been stacked beside the fireplace and gave off a pungent, mossy perfume as the flames warmed them. Coffee and bourbon circulated, along with plates of warm peach custard pie, beside which the vanilla ice cream had gone glossy and begun to pool. The rain fell very precisely into the grass and disappeared, and every so often, the wind blew the trees, and the tin roof resounded with a rifle-crack report. "Walnuts," my father said under his breath.
I ducked back into the house to sit alone in my grandfather's office. Behind his desk was a swivel chair of orange burnished leather, which squealed on its casters when I dragged it into the middle of the room. That morning, I sat in the chair and, as I'd often done as a boy, spun myself slowly in circles. It seemed to me that the burial would be an almost-perfunctory act. Those my grandfather had loved, to whatever degree he was able, had mostly preceded him. The last decade of his life, he'd already tenanted a world populated mostly by ghosts, and in death he only made official what had previously been, as he would have said, ipso facto. His few remaining friends would sit in the chairs nearest the grave, waiting their turn. Neither then, as I spun listlessly in circles, listening to the rain, nor for a long while after did it occur to me that much of the grieving after a death is done not so much for the loss of the loved one but for the simple passage of time, which so gently obliterates everything before it.
At the funeral, five nearly identical great-grandsons were tucked like dolls into their suits and seated one after another in the pew with lemon candies in their mouths and their feet dangling above the tile floor. Old men were helped to their feet, spoke, and sat down. "I was stationed in North Africa when I sent Tom Wood a letter by V-mail. That's V-mail, not email. It was February 19, 1943, a Friday . . ." The organist sat facing the chancel, shoulders hunched beneath a wide lace collar.
The entire day bent itself toward that hole in the ground, and when the grave finally lay open before us, the uneasy relationship of the living to the dead was summed up not by the pastor, who cleared his throat and lowered his eyes, saying, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death," but by one of the grave-digging crew, a man with a camouflage cap and a ruffle of brown hair hanging halfway down his back. His sneakers were dirty with the muck of the grave, and he'd misbuttoned his shirt so that one side of his collar sat higher than the other. Beneath it, a hunter-orange fabric showed out. As the pallbearers approached with the casket, he stood at the head of the hole, holding his hands out parallel before him saying, "Square her up, y'all . . . Square her up . . ."
The effect of the death of a person does not necessarily correlate with how well you knew them or whether you bore them any affection. No one can say whether the funeral of an aunt will plunge you into deepest depression or profoundest meditation, or will only take up four hours of the afternoon. You may sleep as softly as a child that night, wake chipper, and breakfast on potato salad and hot egg sandwiches on a patio covered in wisteria, and two hours later be brought to your knees with despair at the sight of a little clubfooted pigeon in the gas station parking lot. Or the grief, if grief even is the right word, will manifest itself only years or decades later, as an inability to eat the licorice your aunt always ate, the smell of which seemed to exude from her very skin.
In my case, I slipped away from the wake, declining the plate of fried chicken and the slice of watermelon, and drove around in the rain until I'd found a hotel bar where I felt I could be certain of seeing no one I'd ever known. I sat with a book and tried to make some sense of the tumult of the past weeks. In the lobby, a stream of old Indian women in gaily colored saris were passing back and forth between the restroom and a wedding in the banquet hall across the way, and through the open doors, I could just make out the bride and groom as they were led in a circle by an officiant with a Rasputinish glare. At each successful circumnavigation of the marriage bower, he paused, looked gravely at the crowd, and said, "Please make them a hand." A hesitant applause followed. The saturated shades of the women's garments, cerulean and crimson and chartreuse; the eyes of the officiant glowering beneath his brow; and the murmurs of the wedding, sounding to my ear like a kind of musical drowning: it was against this background that I attempted to come to terms with the death of a man I'd both respected and despised, the Honorable Thomas Wood, judge in the Lycoming County Court of Common Pleas.
Well before I was born, my grandfather had been elected to the court, a position that, to preserve the objectivity of the office, came with a ten-year term. He lived with my grandmother in the dilapidated farmhouse in Muncy, and Monday to Friday he drove the fifteen miles to Williamsport to sit for cases ranging from divorce to delinquency to the fluoridation of the water supply. He was highly regarded, I'd been told at the funeral, lenient in his sentences and ahead of his time in his notions of justice, and after we'd lowered the casket into the grave, a stooped old man had pulled me aside to say there was never anyone as honest and compassionate as Judge Wood.
"A murder on the Gulf's Coast's Anna Maria Island sets the stage for a fascinating exploration of love and loss, told amid swaying palm trees and seedy motels."
“In Love and Death in the Sunshine State, this gripping exploration of an island murder and a heartland love, Cutter Wood subverts all our expectations for the true crime genre. He challenges what we mean by 'true,' by presenting us with feats of imagination alongside traditional reportage, and challenges how we understand 'crime' by asking us to consider the relationship between acts of extraordinary violence and the rhythms of our ordinary lives. Wood’s voice is smart, curious, playful, and wholly engaging.”
—Leslie Jamison, author of The Recovering
“Love and Death in the Sunshine State, the new debut by Cutter Wood, is an astonishing true-crime narrative that, in its lyricism and formal inventiveness, expands and defies our expectations of what literary nonfiction can be . . . In the spirit of William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, Wood pushes beyond the facts of the case itself to explore larger questions of intimacy, destruction, and regret. This is a brilliant first book by an enormously talented young writer.”
"Wood’s mixture of fact and art yields a tale both gritty and introspective, with a real murder providing an entree to an examination of the nature of love. Wood’s prose is detailed yet deft... This is a fine true-crime mystery and a touching journey into the human heart."
“Love and Death in the Sunshine State is a memorable, thought-provoking work of true crime and imagination.”
“Cutter Wood's book, Love and Death in the Sunshine State, is like the antidote to the typical true crime story. It's a sad, tough story, but Cutter Wood takes the reader to the heart of the matter. His is a respectful approach to human imperfection and frailty. I look forward to reading Wood's future works.”
“An exploration of motive and desire, a little bit of death and a whole lot more love. It’s compelling and ethically sticky, and it will haunt you for a long time after you’re done.”
“Wood combines elements of true crime with the techniques of contemporary fiction in his bold debut . . . Readers of literary nonfiction will find a promising new writer.”
“Those who appreciate style and creativity, which Wood has in abundance, will enjoy this.”
“ . . . written with psychological insight and literary flair.”
“There's a murder at the heart of Cutter Wood's remarkably tender and haunting new book, but in its soul, this is a story about coming of age and falling in love. Ultimately, the greatest achievements of Love and Death in the Sunshine State are its unflinching attention to both what must be reported and what can only be imagined, and its insistence that somewhere between the two lies the complexity of our lived experience.”
—John D’Agata, author of About a Mountain
—Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, author of The Fact of a Body
"A striking blend of reportage, memoir, and confession, Cutter Wood has created a story that is bold, rapturous, and heartbreaking. In this extraordinary work of nonfiction, Wood considers what it means to love and be loved and reckons with the co-existence of our everyday desires in the midst of incomprehensible terror. Like the the work of Sebald, the book's unexpected paths to self-reflection and grace are wonderfully disorienting and sure to leave you rethinking the world around you."
—Jennifer Percy, author of Demon Camp
- On Sale
- Apr 17, 2018
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Algonquin Books