LNS-coverChapter 3

Lawrence, Kansas, 1997

Joan set the letter carefully on the table and drew in a deep breath.

“Wow,” she breathed.

Joan searched her brain for who “A” could possibly have been. She couldn’t recall her mother talking about anyone whose name began with that letter, but still . . . She considered the stack of pictures. Was “A”s image among them? Surely if she had loved him that much, she would have a picture of him. She was tempted to go through the pictures again. Her mother had often scribbled names and dates on the back.

She looked down at the remaining six letters. Perhaps there were some clues there. She considered how best to read them. Should she do it in order or perhaps begin with the most recent? She fanned them out and studied them. She had begun with the oldest, so she opted to continue sequentially. She picked up the knife and the envelope that looked to be the next oldest just as the telephone rang. She put the letter and the knife on the table and walked into the kitchen. The phone, the one she remembered from her childhood, was a boxy wall unit the color of split pea soup. She lifted the receiver from the silver cradle and raised it to her ear.

“Hello?” she said into the mouthpiece.

“Hey.” It was Luke. “How’s it going?”

Joan sighed. “It’s . . . going. I’m going through everything.”

“Well, don’t overdo it,” he said.

“How are the kids?” she asked. “Have they given you any trouble?”

“Nah,” Luke said. “Matty is working on his homework and Sarah is up in her room.”

“Good,” she said. “You’re doing okay as a single parent?”

Luke laughed. “Easy as pie. I was expecting it to be a lot harder from the way you talk about it.”

Joan frowned at the comment. “Try doing it all of the time,” she muttered.

“Huh?” Luke asked. “I didn’t catch that.”

“Nothing,” Joan said. “Just talking to myself. Did work call?”

“Yeah.” Luke sounded distracted. Joan could hear a football game on the television in the background.

“What did they say?” Joan asked.

“Damn!” Luke said.

“What?” Joan asked.

“Green Bay just scored,” Luke said. “Great. I’ve got twenty bucks riding on this game.”

“Luke, what did work say?” Joan asked again.

“Oh . . . uh, Bethie called and said your boss said to take as long you need,” he said. “He said he would get Bethie and one of the other paralegals to cover your work while you’re gone.”

Joan nodded, not surprised that Mark would say that, but slightly disappointed that her absence was so easily accommodated.

“So, you’re good.” Luke paused. “Shit! The Bears fumbled the kickoff.”

Joan waited, and when Luke didn’t say anything, she knew he was watching the game.

“Okay, well, I’m going to let you go,” she said, struggling to keep the irritation out of her voice. “I’m going through some of Mom’s stuff so I should probably get back to it.”

“Yeah,” Luke said, distracted. “Okay, well, we’re here so call if you need us.”

“I will,” Joan said. “Kiss the kids for me.”

“Okay,” Luke said. “Bye.”

Joan opened her mouth to answer and heard the dial tone. He hadn’t even waited for her to respond before hanging up. She replaced the receiver and sank down onto the wooden stool under the phone. She stared at the faded curtains that hung limply on the kitchen door and wondered what had happened to her marriage. How had they become so careless of each other? Was this what had happened to Katherine and Clyde? Perhaps that was part of what led Katherine to have her affair with “A.” She remembered the letters and returned to the dining room.

“Oldest first,” she murmured as she slid back into her chair and picked up the envelope she had set down to answer the phone. She slid the knife under the gummed lip. Years of storage had already done much of the work, and it opened with a dusty crackle. She unfolded the sheets of paper and began to read.

 

1954

My Darling A:

It’s been six months since your death—six months without your laugh or your amazing face. It’s as if a light has gone out. Every day I think of you, long for you, wish that I would have been brave enough to be with you. If I had just been stronger, you would still be here. But then, you always were the braver of the two of us. You knew from the beginning.

My life without you is a constant string of activities designed to pass the hours, the days, the months. I get up, make breakfast, clean the house, shop for groceries, prepare meals, walk in the afternoons, and long for the night when I can sink mercifully into sleep. It’s only there, my love, that we can be together. You visit me nightly, did you know that? Sometimes we talk. Sometimes we make love. The hardest part is letting go of the dreams the next day and wading through the hours of reality.

I was walking yesterday when in my head I heard our song and evoked a memory so real, it brought tears to my eyes. You were sitting on that rock and the waves of Lake Michigan were rolling in and out. It sounded like the ocean. Your sleeves were rolled up and you were holding a cigarette and singing. Do you remember that day? You had the worst singing voice in the world, but it was the sweetest sound to my ears. Isn’t it amazing how the smallest memories can elicit the strongest emotions?

Please know there is not a day that goes by that I don’t regret my life, the decisions I made or the fact that your murder was my fault.

I love you now and forever with all that I am.

K.

 

Joan stared in disbelief at the last few lines. How could this man’s murder could possibly have been her mother’s fault?

She sat back and rubbed her eyes. It was almost too much to take in. Her mother not only had a lover, but this man had been murdered, and her mother had had something to do with it. She looked back at the contents of the box. Her mother had written the first letter in 1947. This one was dated 1954, shortly before she had been born. She picked up the next envelope and, without the care she had shown with the other letters, ripped it open. It was dated 1955.

 

1955

Dearest~

It’s been more than a year without you and already it feels like a lifetime. I am so lost without you. I weep when I think about all the time I could have had with you—time that I squandered. I could have had a LIFE with you. And I threw it away with both hands, running toward something that would never make me happy. I’m ashamed at my wastefulness.

I’m a mother now. It’s ironic, isn’t it? All I thought I was supposed to be—a wife and a mother—I now am and it makes me miserable. I’m trapped in a prison of my own making. This is my punishment. I see that now.

I rarely sleep now—not because of the baby, but because when I sleep, I dream of you. I dream of your eyes, your smile, your mouth kissing mine. I can feel you making love to me. And then I wake and it’s almost too much to bear.

I cannot live without you. More to the point, I don’t want to live without you. I think more and more often about ending my life so that we can be together. But I’m too much of a coward even for that. I’ve made my choices and my punishment is living with them. I have responsibilities. I have a daughter.

You are never far from my thoughts. One day, my love. One day.

K.

 

Joan winced as she reread the letter. She had not been wanted. Although she had always sensed it, to know that she had been a burden to her mother was something else. She put the letter on the table and shoved the chair back, scraping the wooden floor. She felt the tears burning the backs of her eyes, but held them back.

“Fuck you, Mother. You don’t deserve my tears.” She looked angrily around the room. “I don’t even want to be here!” She sighed as some of the anger ebbed out of her. “Do you understand that? I never wanted to be here.”

Joan stood, dragged herself into the hall, and yanked open the front door. The evening was chilly. She grabbed her jacket and stepped onto the front porch.

“Bitch,” she muttered as she hurried down the steps and along the walk to the sidewalk. She strode toward campus at a brisk pace, her hands shoved into her jacket pockets, her collar turned up against the chill. For several blocks, she stared blindly ahead, lost in her own thoughts.

As her anger cooled, she looked through the illuminated windows at the people inside the houses. Some were watching television, some were eating, and some were doing both. She enjoyed being on the outside looking in. To see such normalcy, such domesticity, calmed her. It reminded her of her own family, though they never seemed to sit down to family dinners anymore. Between Luke’s late nights at work and the kids’ extracurricular activities, meals were often on the go.

And then there were her own extracurricular activities.

Joan snorted in frustration. She didn’t know why she was so shocked to learn that her mother had been having an affair. How was it any different than the one she was involved in with Mark? She shook her head at the memory of Mark kissing her, his dark eyes and dark wavy hair, his hands on her body. She hadn’t wanted to get involved with him—at least not at first. But after working with him on cases, spending hours together, she had gotten to know him. And she had liked him. He was smart, attentive, and sensitive—everything that Luke wasn’t. And he wanted her. What could be more of an aphrodisiac?

At first, their relationship had been just about sex and mutual attraction. She could admit that. But after several months of furtive meetings at hotels, in cars, or in his office when they could get away with it, it had become more. It had become much more. They had begun to talk of divorcing their spouses and marrying each other—that was until last month when Mark had become distant and vague. Finally he admitted that his wife suspected he was being unfaithful and had threatened to keep him away from his children.

“And you don’t think I have the same pressures?” Joan had asked. “You don’t think I worry about losing my children over this?”

“You’re the mother,” Mark had said. “They won’t take your children away unless you’re a raving lunatic. And even then you’re pretty sure of getting custody.”

“So, what are you saying?” Joan asked.

“I’m saying that we need to tone it down for a little bit,” he said. “Regroup. Figure out a game plan.”

“I thought we had a game plan,” Joan responded.

“A different game plan,” he said.

And then, nothing. He began to avoid her at work. And what was once the best part of her day had become the worst. She had been relieved when dealing with her mother’s estate had provided an excuse to take a temporary leave of absence. No doubt he had been, too.

But that’s because he didn’t know, Joan thought morosely. He doesn’t know.

She breathed heavily as she climbed the long curving hill that started behind the library and wound up to the campus’s main thoroughfare, Jayhawk Boulevard. She didn’t want to think about the baby growing inside her—or the fact that it was most likely Mark’s. She had slept with Luke as soon as she had missed her first period. She had hoped it was close enough to the conception—if it was indeed Mark’s—that there wouldn’t be any questions regarding parentage. Lord knew they looked somewhat similar. But still.

“Jesus,” she breathed as she crested the hill. “I don’t remember the hill being this steep.” Panting, she stopped, put her hands on her hips, and turned to look down the curving sidewalk. Her thoughts returned to her mother’s lover and the letters. The mystery was a nice diversion from her own problems.

“There must be someone I could ask,” she said aloud as she turned left and began the familiar walk through campus. As far as she knew, her mother didn’t have any close friends aside from Mrs. Yoccum. Her mother’s brother, Bud, was still alive but they had been estranged for as long as she could remember. Still, he might have some information. She seemed to remember that he was living in a nursing home in Topeka and that he had Alzheimer’s. But it wouldn’t hurt to call her cousin, Barbara, and see what she had to say. Maybe Bud had good days. Topeka was only thirty minutes away. Perhaps she could go visit him.

And she should read the rest of the letters. Maybe they could give her some kind of clue as to who “A” was, explain why her mother had made the choices she had, and why she had been so distant and remote.

She reached the Chi Omega fountain that signaled the end of campus. A jogger stopped to let his shaggy, black dog drink and in glow of the street light, she saw him lift his hand in greeting. She forced herself to smile in return before turning on her heel and heading slowly back in the direction of her mother's house.

# # #

Joan was more confused than ever by the time she finished reading the fourth and fifth letters dated 1956 and 1957. It appeared Katherine was writing a letter each year. Joan opened the remaining letters and checked the dates. 1958 and 1959.

“I need a chronology,” she muttered as she picked up the spiral notebook she had been using for her inventory. She flipped to a fresh page and wrote down known dates, along with her notes.

1912—Mom born

1931—Moves to Chicago

1930s—Meets “A” (and begins affair?)

1939—Mom and Dad married

1947—First letter

1954—Second letter (why time lapse?)

1955—I’m born/third letter

1956—Fourth letter

1957—Fifth letter

1958—Sixth letter

1959—Last letter (why no more?)

1977—Dad died

1997—Mom died

Joan stared at her timeline. Her mother’s lover must have been someone she had met while living in Chicago, but who? She thought about the stories she had heard over the years. No one fit the bill. She returned her attention to the dates of the letters. Why, after so much time, did Katherine begin this annual vigil? And why did it suddenly end? She shook her head. None of it made any sense.

“This is getting me nowhere,” she murmured finally. “I need to talk to Barbara. Maybe Bud can explain what the hell was going on.”