LNS-coverChapter 4

Lawrence, Kansas, 1957

KATHERINE WIPED HER hands on the thin cotton dishtowel and surveyed the kitchen. Everything seemed to be in order. There was little she hated more than to get up in the morning and have to do dishes or clean up from the night before. Satisfied, she hung the damp dishtowel on the wooden rack, took off her apron, folded it neatly, and placed it in the pantry. She closed the pantry door, snapped off the light, and walked through the darkened house.

She had been dreading it all day, but now it was time.

She climbed the stairs to her room. Joanie had been put to bed around eight o’clock, and she could hear Clyde’s deep, rhythmic snore as she passed his door. She smiled as she fantasized about holding a pillow over his face until the snoring stopped. She imagined his face when she removed the pillow. Would it be red or purple? Would his eyes be open or shut?

“Bastard,” she said and continued on to her room. She and Clyde hadn’t shared a bed since Joan had been born, which was fine by her. She had never loved him, and what fondness she had developed prior to Joan’s conception had long since turned into hate—a feeling that she knew was mutual. They were trapped in a prison of their own making— both staying out of necessity and the desire to punish the other.

Katherine had contemplated leaving several times, but she recognized there was no way she could survive. And to divorce, given the circumstances, would be the ultimate embarrassment. So there they were, day after day, year after year. She kept the house, and he made the money. And then there was Joan. Despite everything that had happened, Clyde loved his daughter. And, if she were honest, he was a better parent than she, herself, was. He had wanted Joanie. She had not, and if she were to leave, she would have sole responsibility for the child.

Katherine opened the door to her room and, without turning on the lights, went inside. Almost greedily she allowed herself to be swallowed by the darkness as she remembered other times she had stood in another darkened room—the urgent kisses, the trembling fingers as they unbuttoned whatever dress she was wearing, the feel of every sinew of her body taut with expectation. She leaned back against the door and pressed her fingertips to her lips. Her heart thumped heavily in her chest, and she closed her eyes. Remembering was almost harder than forcing herself to forget.

She stood that way for several minutes, eyes squeezed shut until finally, she forced herself to walk across the room to the small desk and turn on the lamp. It was the same one she had when she lived in Chicago, and its warm, buttery light usually made her feel better. Not on this night. She sagged against the back of the desk chair, weighted down by what she had to do. Finally, when she felt able, she turned, walked to the closet, and removed the battered suitcase from where it was hidden in the back. Carefully, almost reverently, she carried it to the bed.

Three years had passed since she had taken the case, its contents, and her memories and put them in her closet—three years since her happiness had been stolen from her. She trailed her fingertips over the leather straps that buckled on the front and caressed one of the gold buttons that worked the spring-latch closure. She had taken the same suitcase with her when she had gone to Kansas City with every intention of leaving Clyde.

With a sigh, she bent to the task of unbuckling, unclasping, and opening the case. The faint scent of lavender wafted up from the clothes within. With shaking hands, she pressed one hand on the top garment—a white, cotton shirt. It felt cool to her sweaty palm.

“This is getting me nowhere.” She moved her hand below the neatly-folded fabric, pulled out the wooden box she knew would be there, and set it gently on her lap. She caressed the smooth, polished lid. For a second, she remembered the morning she had awakened to find the box sitting on the nightstand. The note propped up in front of it had read simply, “For You.” She had sat up, the sheet covering her nakedness, and lifted the box onto her lap. It was light. She opened the lid. Inside was a delicately-embroidered handkerchief, upon which lay a tooled gold locket on a delicate chain.

She gasped. It was beautiful. She gently touched the design on the front—a lily, its bloom open. Carefully, she lifted the locket from the box and held it with the chain draped over her fingers and down the back of her hand. It was warm to her touch. She used her fingernail to release the tiny clasp and opened the locket. Inside was a small key that looked as if it fit the lock on the front of the box and pictures of the two of them taken at the World’s Fair. She tipped the key into her hand and studied the tiny images. They had been carefully clipped to fit into the oval cavities of the locket.

Katherine smiled, remembering the day, still feeling the sun shining on their shoulders as they strolled down the fairway. In front of them had been an older couple—the woman with a cane and the man in shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows.

It had been an amazing day—so much to see and do. And then, later that night after too much sun and drink and excitement, they had kissed. She hadn’t expected it at the time, although now, in retrospect, she supposed she had. It’s surprising at how much you know that you don’t think you know—or, she amended, were scared to know. That kiss, she recognized now, had changed her, had shown her who she was, even as it had turned her life upside down.

Katherine shook her head, as if to dispel the memories, and pulled the gold locket out of the front of her blouse. It was warm from the heat of her body, and she rubbed the worn back with the fleshy part of her thumb. She inhaled and used her fingernail to press the tiny clasp. Inside was the key to the box and the pictures from so long ago.

“We were so young,” she said softly, almost in wonder as she stared into her own much younger face. “We had no idea.”

Katherine wanted to weep at the thought of who they had been and what she had lost, but instead, forced herself to the task at hand. She inserted the key into the lock on the front of the box and turned it to the left. The lock disengaged with a tiny click, and she raised the lid. Inside, everything was as she had left it the previous year. And the year before that. And the year before that. There were the car keys, the theater tickets, the bullet casing, and the small stack of letters wrapped in the green and white scarf. Last year’s letter lay on top.

Katherine touched the scarf and the letters with her fingertips. They were the only way she had now to communicate. She set the still-open box back in the suitcase and walked to the writing table. She had two hours before it was midnight. She pulled out the expensive writing paper and her old fountain pen, sat down, and began to write.

1957

Dearest A~

It’s nearing midnight and I’ve thought about writing this letter all day—both with anticipation and also with dread. I can’t believe it’s been three years. It seems like both just yesterday and an eternity.

Joan asked me today why I was so angry all the time. I don’t think she realized it wasn’t anger, but in fact sadness. You wouldn’t recognize or like the bitter woman I’ve become. I don’t even like myself. Maybe Joanie is right—I am angry. And I take it out on those around me— specially her. I know she’s just a girl, but how can I reconcile her birth with the loss of everything I wanted for my life?

You still haunt my dreams and usually, they are lovely in how mundane they are—the two of us walking or laughing or reading together. But then I wake and it’s agony because your laughter echoes in my ears and your scent lingers in my nose. The shadow of your presence is so real, that when I realize that it was just a dream—that none of it was real—all I want to do is weep. Oh, how I wish I could summon you back—somehow manifest you into flesh. But, I can’t. I can only pray (not that I believe in God any longer) that one day we’ll be together again. Until that day, you remain my one true love.

K.

Katherine re-read the letter. It was no different than the previous ones, she realized—not really. But then, how many times can you say you’re sorry for decisions you’ve made? How many ways can you express regret? How many ways can you grieve? Her eyes burned and her throat tightened. She looked at the window and saw her bleary face reflected back. She looked old and tired. She knew the years hadn’t been kind to her. Once, she had been attractive, even beautiful some had said. But now she just looked used up.

“No use fussing about the things you can’t change,” she said, echoing her mother’s oft-used saying. And she couldn’t change things—she knew that all too well.

She sighed and suddenly became aware of the steady ticking of the clock. It was time. She folded the paper with care and slipped it into the envelope. As the grandfather clock downstairs chimed, she stood, went to her closet, and pulled the hatbox from the back of the top shelf. Back at the desk, she lifted off the lid and removed the bottle of whiskey and two jelly jars that she used only on this night. She unscrewed the cap, poured several fingers-worth into each of the jars and raised one of the glass jars in a toast.

“To you, my love,” she said as she blinked back the tears she could no longer stop. She raised the glass to her lips and poured the contents into her mouth. She smiled wryly at the familiar, cauterizing burn as the alcohol made its way from her lips to her throat to her chest and finally, her stomach. She picked up the second jar and held it aloft. “And here’s to the day when we’re together at last.”

She emptied the glass and exhaled sharply. She never drank anymore except on this day, and already she could feel the effects of the whiskey. She contemplated having a third drink, but decided against it.

Two was enough, especially with the generosity of her pours. She capped the bottle, put it back in the hat box, and used her skirt to wipe clean the jelly jars. She placed them next to the bottle and returned the box to the back of her closet shelf. Finally, she sealed the envelope containing the letter and carried it to the bed. The other letters lay in a neat stack tied up with the scarf. Gently, she untied the knot and pulled away the layers of cloth that covered the parcel.

“This is what my life has become,” she said as she placed the newest letter on the top of the stack. She sighed deeply and retied it. It was always this way—this organized precision. Write the letter . . . make the toast . . . put the letter in the box . . . lock the box and put the key back in the locket . . . put the box in the suitcase and the suitcase in the back of the closet until next year.

Katherine looked at the clock. It was almost midnight. The day was almost over—not that her grief eased with the passing of the day. Far from it. If anything, the annual observance made things harder. But it was the least she could do.

She walked back to the window and pressed her forehead against the cool glass. Her face was flushed, though from the whiskey or her emotions, she wasn’t sure. She thought wistfully back to when she was young, before she knew about love and passion and loss and obligation. She leaned back and opened her eyes. Her blurry reflection stared back at her.

“Coward,” she spat bitterly. She glared at the reflection, and it glared back, mocking her. She snapped off the lamp. Though the reflection was gone, the recrimination remained.

She stared out into the blackness, her eyes taking in but not registering the skeletal trees devoid of their leaves. Before all of this, fall had always been her favorite season. She loved the smells, the feel, the energy as everyone and everything gave one last big push of activity and life before hunkering down for the winter. She had especially loved the fall in Chicago as she walked down the crowded streets with all the other people suddenly freed from the oppressive heat of summer. There had been an energy—an excitement that appeared when the air finally turned cool.

Chicago. The corners of Katherine’s lips rose into a weak smile. She had moved to Chicago in the fall of 1931. That was when her life had begun.

“God damn it,” she whispered as she again leaned her head against the cool glass and finally allowed herself to cry. “Why does it have to be so hard?”