Friday, May 15, 2009
The Letter (full story)
"I don't know, maybe it'll go on E-Bay. The stuff inside is intact. Probably a collector will bite."
Sherry frowns, sorry she had accepted the lot in the first place as her middle-aged son lugs the old box past her and drops in on the floor beside a pile of green glass jars and carefully folded yellowed linens. She hates being in her shop on Saturdays because the daunting task of pricing new stuff looms over her. Newly acquired clutter fills the room: nick-knacks, faded pictures, rusty mirrors, tattered books, clocks that have ceased keeping time, chairs that need their joints re-glued, scratched curios wanting new stain all ready to be polished, cleaned and re-sold. Orphaned by deceased owners, these objects wait to be re-gifted and born again into a new use.
"It's all just a bunch of junk. Price it 40% off and move it." She scoffs as she rings up a customer, shakes open a white kitchen garbage bag and places newly sold items into it.
In the corner her son counts hundred dollar bills and tallies them in a ledger.It's that time of afternoon when the sun streams through the dusty window, washing over the tired old merchandise and making cut glass vases scattered throughout the shop sparkle.Picking up a box, Sherry notices some writing on the side."Do not throw out."Inside the box is a giant ornate Bible.
A letter falls out of the book. Sherry rips it open out of curiosity. Scrawled in a weak hand is:
I was not able to tell you this while I lived because I was too ashamed. I hope you finding it now gives me some rest in the after-life, before I face the consequences of my actions. Sometimes when a person puts so much stock into the material life, and then it is suddenly gone, there is no seeing past what is lost. Your father was not a monster, but I am. He did not shoot himself. I shot him in our bedroom, and staged a suicide. I had some debt.
Please forgive me,
Your loving mother,
Looking up from the letter, Sherry shouts, "Jack, Where did this box come from?"
"Um, some old lady's dining room closet, mom. Her daughter sold the contents of the house. I think the name was Furman. "
She returns the letter to its yellowed envelope and slides it into the back of the book. The book was clearly given away by mistake. For a moment a thought causes Sherry to hesitate, perhaps she should call the family and offer to have her son drop off the book with the daughter. She opens her phone ledger and scrolls down the names with her finger.
Estate Sale of Agnes Furman
326 Greene Street
Daugher- Susan Ruthe 674-9867
Sherry grabs her cell phone from a drawer, compelled to call. Then something distracts her.A man approaches her at the register and leans over the book.
"An old family Bible. There would definitely be a market for that among collectors online."
He raises up the book and inspects the binding.
"It's got gilded edges. Nice. Actually, I'm a dealer and I think I have a client who'll buy this. I'll give you $500 for it."
Sherry puts the phone back on the counter. "Alrighty-then. Sold." She says, writing up a receipt as the letter falls out of the back of the book.
The dealer bends down to pick up the envelope. "What's this?"
"Oh, just some junk. Here, throw it in this." She holds out a pail lined with a white kitchen garbage bag. The man leaves happy with his purchase. The rest of the day flies by with a couple of architectural pieces coming in from a house demolition, business as usual.
Jack closes up the antique shop a whole two hours after his mother leaves early with a headache. On her way home, Sherry is talking on the Blackberry while driving even though her husband Tom made her swear never to do it. She lies.
"No I'm parked right now. Yeah, It's this buzzing electric feeling at the back of my neck, like bees or something, and then coldness, like there are ice cubes there suddenly. It happens over and over again...Just today after I had that third cup of coffee. No, just the usual stuff. Yes, I took Advil. I don't know, I hope it's not arthritis in my shoulders. Okay, love you,bye."
The Advil doesn't work. By the time she goes to bed, Sherry is so irritated. She takes two Motrin and closes her eyes. Finally, she relaxes.It's the sensation of being shoved forcefully by frail white-gloved hands, breath on the back of her neck, the smell of brandy. For a moment, like a spectator in her own nightmare, Sherry watches herself being pushed out of the house and down the street by an old woman with the strength of an ox. She stumbles barefoot at the fast-forward speed that only takes place in panic dreams. The hands are like ice on the back of her shoulders. She reaches the door of her shop.
Sherry shivers as the breath of this creature numbs her left ear. She fumbles with the key, still feeling the shock of cold hands on her shoulders. The door swings open and she feels her body propelled forward to the front desk. The garbage pail flips over spilling its contents. An empty 7-11 coffee cup rolls under her desk chair. The bag was changed.Sherry feels herself lifted, icy hands cutting off her windpipe, she gasps for air.
"Jack changed the bag." She struggles to say, coughing, and frozen in horror.
Her head hits the old tin ceiling. "Please." She cries.
No letter means no rest from this thing. The creature lets go. Sherry falls to the floor of her shop, hitting her head on her desk.
"Sherry? Are you okay?!" Tom shouts.
Sherry looks up, tears flooding her eyes. The bedroom is dark, but birds are beginning to chirp outside.
"Sherry, Sweetheart, You were having a bad dream." Tom reaches over to pull her up, half-asleep himself.
"No, I made a mistake yesterday. I threw something out that I shouldn't have."
Sherry opens her dresser drawer and pulls out a pair of slacks.
"What are you doing? It's three in the morning?" Tom whines.
"I have to go to work and get the garbage back before it gets picked up."
Before Tom can protest, Sherry has left the room.
Never in her 62 years of life was Sherry compelled to leave her bed at three a.m. and rummage through a garbage dumpster. Today is a first.To say that this ruthless business woman is spooked is putting it lightly.
"The cold hands in the dream, and my neck pain..." Sherry shudders at the connection, talking to herself in her car as she pulls into the shop parking lot.
"This is stupid. I'm losing my mind."She complains, slamming the car door and walking toward the dumpster.
Sherry lifts the green metal lid and stands on her toes to peer inside, as she is a small woman in more ways than one. What she sees makes her shriek and fall backwards into a puddle. Peeking out of a white garbage bag is a knotty old hand with long red nails, a large opal ring on the pointer finger, iridescent in the moonlight. The lid crashes closed again. Somewhere off in the distance, a dog is barking and a porch light turns on.
"Can you hear me, Ma'am?" Sherry? Your husband is here."
Sherry feels wet and muddy. Her eyes focus on a woman in a cop uniform, bent over her. Her ponytail is so tight. She thinks.
"Honey, does that hairdo give you headaches?" Sherry asks.
The cop laughs. "Looks like she's gonna be OK. We'll have EMTs check her out, but I think she just passed out. There is no sign of assault."
Sherry looks up at Tom, remembering the dream, and the horrible discovery.
"Did you see the body in the dumpster? I saw a hand with a jeweled ring, an opal I think?!"
She tries to stand, recoiling as she glances in the direction of the garbage.
"I have to find the letter," Sherry says stumbling toward the garbage bin, but now it is being blocked off by law enforcement.
"You claim you saw a body in the garbage. There is a certain protocol that we have to follow now, Ma'am. Describe what you were looking for, and we'll search for it."
The cop is clicking her pen, waiting. Sherry doesn't know exactly how to describe the letter without sounding crazy.
"It mentions a murder that happened in 1948. It's signed: Agnes."
The cop stares at Sherry with an amused expression."Interesting," she says, making a call.
The dumpster is checked by crime scene detectives. There is no body and no letter, but her shop is destroyed on the inside. Furniture is flipped, and the floor is littered with broken glass. Sherry sobs on Tom's shoulder.
"There is no sign of a break in, and the doors were locked. Ma'am, who else has a key?"
"Just my son, but he left for an auction in New Jersey after work yesterday," Sherry says, wiping back tears.
She dials his number on her cell phone. Eventually the rings go to voice mail.
"What's this?" Tom holds up a sticky note from the register and passes it to Sherry. Written in a shaken hand is:
"Good Morning! It is now 3:25 a.m. and the problem with you is that you are a SELFISH scavenger. We have that in common, dear. Except my heart is VERY cold now. Find my property."
Sherry pales. She sits on a pile of torn encyclopedias. The cop hands her a bottle of water and takes Tom aside as she writes up the report.
"Sir, The only other person with a key is your wife. The person who wrote the note included the time, and that's odd. There were no body parts or weird letters in the garbage. Would there be any possibility that she made this mess herself and doesn't remember? I know her health is none of my business, but no one was here except her."
"What? Someone did this...AND damaged a whole lot of antiques. Excuse me but, my wife can't flip a Hoosier. She's not that big. Call this what it is, a robbery!"
"Alright sir, I'm sorry. The building is completely secured, no windows or locks broken. It's not personal."
Tom snorts and walks off to get some air outside. Somewhere in his mind a question lingers about his wife's judgement.
"Could she have done this all in her sleep?"He wonders. After dinner that evening he makes a call to a doctor who also happens to be an old friend.
It had been about seven months since Tom reconnected with Darcy via an online social network, where he had discovered that this old flame was anything but an old bag. She was, in fact, rather well-maintained. They had met a few times at her psychiatry practice after hours, and multiple drinks led to a bad case of amnesia as to Tom's marital status.Tom rationalizes the affair. Sherry is focused entirely on her antique business. She is antiquated in her thinking and frumpy, just like the junk in her shop. On the other hand, Darcy is unusually beautiful, divorced, a health nut with the body of a much younger woman.
After finding out Darcy's profession, Tom reveals to her over mango Margaritas that it was just a short time after he married Sherry that he discovered that she teetered on the edge of sanity. Of course, originally this is a lie intended to gain Darcy's sympathy. Now the lie is propelling him forward into an exciting future. He can get rid of Sherry, maintain part-ownership of the shop and wildly successful online business with his son Jack, while he travels the world with Darcy, living out a second youth.
"Who could blame me?" He wonders, calling her from his cell phone in the upstairs bathroom.
Darcy is on a treadmill at the gym when her phone rings.
"What's up, honey?"
"It's about Sherry, my wife."
There's an awkward pause. Darcy wonders if Sherry's found out about her, or perhaps Tom has filed for divorce, like he promised.
"Sherry may be...getting worse. I want to know if she can make an appointment with you."
"What? For a consult? Don't you think that is dumb being that we're ...together?"
"Why Darcy? You're a licensed psychiatrist with your own practice. I'm thinking you can cut past all of that clinical stuff and prescribe something for her. Something strong."
"WHAT?" Darcy drops the phone.
As it hits the floor of the gym, the call shifts to speaker phone. She pounces on it and puts it back to her ear.
"I can't just prescribe psychotropic drugs for a person who doesn't need them." She whispers.
Tom sighs. "Some stuff has happened and I think it's time to go ahead with the situation we talked about. I'm thinking that hospitalization may even be in the future for Sherry. Under your professional care, that is..."
"Oh wow, what happened? Did she have some sort of breakdown?"
"I'm afraid it's even worse than that. She's becoming violent. I think she may be dangerous to herself or others. You should see what she did to her shop last night." Tom sighs again, because it seems like the normal thing to do.
"Oh, Tom honey, I'm so sorry you have to go through all this. I know how much you used to love her. It's hard when someone you love becomes someone you don't even recognize. You know you could....just file for divorce."
Tom tries to appear like he's struggling with the decision, although he is completely indifferent. He has an uncanny ability to change emotions like a chameleon to garner the reactions he desires from others. This is precisely what he was doing yesterday with the cop who questioned Sherry's sanity. He acted as others expected him to act, the collective perception of normal.
"I can't bring myself to do it now that she is spiraling down into illness again. Wait until you hear what she says about some letter. Now she's seeing ghosts."
Darcy fights to keep disappointment and growing resentment out of her tone.
"If he really is interested in a relationship, then he would go through with a divorce." She thinks.
"Alright, I'll see her." Darcy says after a pause.
Later, back on the treadmill, Darcy is deep in thought. Her anger slowly melts into something that resembles blind affection. Someone has to free this gentle, beautiful man from the burden of living in constant mental turmoil.
"My heart goes out to him, caring for Sherry for all of these years, and dealing with the loneliness that comes with that sacrifice." She thinks.
Two weeks pass from the time the shop is "vandalized." The cops have no leads and although most of the merchandise was destroyed, no money was taken from the register or the safe. In the corner of the back hall leading to the restroom is the box from the Furman house. Sherry has been afraid to continue sorting through the junk in it. In fact, she can't even bring herself to touch it.At her husband's pleading Sherry calls the psychiatrist he's found and meets with her. As uncomfortable as it is to see this type of doctor, Sherry appreciates Tom's loving concern for her well-being. Darcy's office is cluttered and dark. This is their third meeting and Sherry is ready to end her appointments all together. She decides to tell the doctor everything.
"Sherry, over the phone your husband, Tom is it?" Sherry nods.
"That's what I thought. Tom let me know that you've struggled with hallucinations and violent outbursts since you were a child. What do you think triggered these recent feelings?"
Sherry looks confused. "I don't have any history of mental illness. Are you sure Tom told you that? Maybe you have me mixed up with another patient."
Darcy smiles kindly, used to dealing with patients in denial. She tries another direction.
"Sherry, what do you think is causing you to have dreams that make you leave your home in the middle of the night?"
"I'm being harassed by a ...ghost, Doctor, to put it bluntly. I threw out a confession letter and sold this woman's family Bible. Now she won't let me rest. I see her in my dreams, and she puts her cold hands on my back and pushes me places. Last night I took a trip to her daughter's house. In the dream her daughter slammed the door in my face and called the police. During the day I see her pacing the shop, weaving in and out of aisles and up and down the staircase. I replaced all my damaged antiques and finally re-opened, but now I'm afraid I'm going to come to work one morning and find the shop trashed again. Please tell me how to get rid of this dead woman, Agnes Furman!" Sherry's tone reaches the point of nervous frenzy.
Darcy is writing in a notebook with a pencil. The scratch of lead on paper irritates Sherry further, reminding her of the times she took her road test as a teen and failed, distracted by the teacher's note-taking.
"What I think you need is a prescription. Darcy says, handing her a slip of paper to bring to the pharmacist. Take this once a day and the hallucinations should stop. If not, we'll increase the dose until the level is comfortable for you. "
Sherry stares at the prescription. "I told you that this is something new for me. I don't think I need this drug. I'm telling you this dead woman is bothering me and more importantly, making me lose money. She destroyed over 4o thousand dollars of antiques in my shop. I'm completely coherent. I know what I saw! I'll get a copy of my medical records from my primary care doctor to prove to you that what you think about my history is a mistake."
"That's not necessary. Sherry. I'm giving you this prescription based on my observations of you in the meetings we've had. You can take it or leave it, but I promise, medication will make you feel better."
Darcy puts her pencil down and it rolls off the pad, hitting the floor. Instinctively, Sherry bends down to pick it up for her. She looks up to find another person staring back at her: a pale, gaunt old woman, possibly in her late nineties. Agnes.
"No good Tramp! She'll be with me when she passes, just like you! Go to my daughter and tell her you know the password is Shirley Temple." Agnes growls.
Sherry's knees buckle and Darcy catches her. "Sherry! Sherry!"
"I'm alright. Did you see her?! Her face was ...on ...your body. Did you hear her?! She called you a no-good tramp!"
Darcy pales. Sherry sits back down while the doctor gets her a glass of water, and one for herself. She leaves the office agreeing to try the medication for two weeks and see how she feels.Tom fills the prescription for her.
That evening, Sherry locks herself in the upstairs bathroom and turns on the shower. Then she flushes the entire contents of the bottle down the toilet.
"I know this is real." Sherry mutters.
Desperate and afraid to go to meet the daughter of Agnes Furman with news about her recently deceased mother's trouble in the after-life, Sherry decides to turn to God, intending to go to confession tomorrow at the local Catholic church.
"In the confessional the priest can't accuse you of being crazy, or give you drugs." She reassures herself.
Raised in a Catholic Irish family, Sherry had drifted away from her faith years ago.
"The priest will help me get the guilt of throwing out the letter off my chest, and get rid of Agnes. If she committed murder, what does that have to do with me? Just leave me ALONE, I can't do anything about it." She thinks, washing her hands.
She turns the light off in the bathroom and gets the first good night's sleep in two weeks.
Darcy meets Tom out for coffee while he's supposed to be picking up dry cleaning.
"I think she knows, Tom, and finding out has pushed her off the edge mentally. She's repressing her anger, and it's coming out in the form of these hallucinations."
Tom shakes his head. "How can she know about us?"
"She had an ...episode. In my office. Her other personality called me a tramp. She knows Tom, and I don't feel comfortable treating her. In fact, I think we should take a break from this for a while."
Tom's eyes widen. "A break from...this? What?"
"From us. Tom. Us. I'm just uncomfortable. If you get a divorce it's one thing, but you won't. Look, I'll keep treating Sherry, but the affair ends now. I'm sorry."
Tom drives home furious. He cuts off a Mac truck, and actually feels sorry he lives through the stunt. It's all Sherry's fault. He needs to get rid of the B... himself. Maybe then Darcy will take him back and he'll still have the business. A thought creeps into his skull. Suicide. He'll stage Sherry's death with an old 9 millimeter pistol he found wrapped up in a man's cotton undershirt inside a discarded box marked "Do Not Throw Out" at the shop. It must be fate. It's a loaded gun.
"Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It's been about..." Sherry looks up at the ceiling, tallying up the estranged years in her head. "It's been over 25 years since my last confession."
She and Father Robert are sitting face to face, without a barrier. Being away so long from her faith, and admitting it causes her more stress than perceived "sins" she has listed in her brain to confess. Fr. Robert nods. She is not unique. He smiles. Most of the confessions he hears are from the same people every single week about such petty things! When someone comes in like this, well, it feels like a breath of fresh air.
"What would you like to talk about today?" Fr. Robert asks.
He's a jolly looking man. Sherry pictures him wearing a crown of olive leaves, like Dicken's Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol. Sherry is fidgeting with her hands like a nervous school girl.
"Well, first is that I stopped believing in God, or rather, stopped believing I needed Him a while back. I got wrapped up in starting my own antique business and I got too busy to fit God in."The priest nods again.Sherry continues.
"A person who has died is driving me insane. I did something wrong to her. I didn't honor her desire to share her confession of murder with her daughter. I found a letter in a box from her estate sale. I threw it out even after I read it, knowing in my heart that I should get it to her daughter."
Sherry pauses. Fr. Robert is staring at her, skeptically.
"I knew that you would listen to me, believe me, help me. You are a priest and you believe in the communion of the saints, in the connectedness of souls to the living. Please help me get rid of this angry soul."
Fr. Robert leans forward in his chair looking at Sherry sympathetically.
"What is it that you think I can do? I am not a Ghost Buster. I'm just a man."
Sherry begins to cry. Fr. Robert frowns, regretting his comment. Obviously this woman is very fragile, mentally.
"Listen." He begins.
Sherry moves her chair back. "You don't believe me. She's making me ill. I can't sleep. My husband has me seeing a psychiatrist who is prescribing medications that I do not need. You have to help me before I really go insane."
"LISTEN to me, please. It does a world of good to pray for others, deceased or living. In fact it is a spiritual work of mercy to help others through prayer. Pray for this woman. Pray for her family. In fact, stay here a minute, I''ll be right back. "
Sherry wipes her tears back as she waits. Fr. Robert returns with a small prayer card.
"This is St. Gertrude. She devoted her life to praying for souls in purgatory. Say this prayer for the woman you feel you have offended. True or not, prayer does everyone good, including you."
In the car Sherry looks at the card. On one side is a picture of a holy woman in green robes, St. Gertrude, followed by a description and prayer:
*"The Prayer of St. Gertrude is one of the most famous of the prayers for souls in purgatory. St. Gertrude the Great was a Benedictine nun and mystic who lived in the 13th century. According to tradition, our Lord promised her that 1000 souls would be released from purgatory each time it is said devoutly. "
Sherry takes a deep breath and says the written prayer aloud:
"Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, those in my own home and within my family and especially for Agnes Furman. Amen."
The light filtering down through the clouds, moving across the afternoon sky, hits the windshield of Sherry's car in such a way that she finds it necessary to put down the sun visor. Sherry puts the car in gear and pulls out of the parking spot, smiling. For the first time in 62 years, she recognizes God's presence in this moment, and it comforts her. With a sense of peace and direction, she heads toward the home of Agnes Furman's daughter.
Sherry doesn't even feel nervous ringing the bell. A woman who looks about the same age as Sherry opens the door.
"Can I help you?"
"You are Mrs. Susan Ruthe?"
The woman nods.
"This is not easy for me to do. I'm sorry about your mother Agnes's passing."
"Um, I don't recognize you. How did you know mom?" The woman looks painfully confused.
"I run an antique shop. My son bought a lot box at your estate sale. There was a confession letter from your mother in the box, admitting to the murder of ...your father. I have to tell you. I threw out the letter, but I have to tell you for her."
The woman's expression turns angry. "Are you a reporter? My father committed suicide a very long time ago. My mother raised me by herself. The story is old and done. Go away!"
Sherry catches the door as the woman attempts to slam it.
"Wait, I know the password is Shirley Temple." It's Shirley Temple! Please listen to me."
The woman bursts into tears and steps outside to face Sherry on the porch.
"How do you know that?"
"Your mother is coming to me while I sleep. She told me to say it."
"When I was a little girl mom used to say that if any stranger ever wanted to pass on a message from her, the stranger would know the password: Shirley Temple. It was our little secret. Mom always feared for my safety. Why are you saying she killed my dad?"
"She put a letter in a Bible. I sold the book and threw the letter in the garbage. I'm sorry. Please forgive me. Agnes regrets her actions and wants you to know the truth about your dad."
Susan stares at Sherry, stiffening. "You need to leave now."
Sherry walks to her car and drives away, unsure if she did any good by delivering the horrible news. Agnes's daughter watches the car leave, finally understanding what her mom meant by her last words:
"Pray for me."
Sherry arrives home and climbs the stairs to her bedroom to change her clothes. Tom is standing in the upstairs bathroom doorway, waiting for her.
"I think we should separate." He announces, expressionless.
"What?" Sherry's voice cracks.
Tom frowns, and for the first time, says something true.
"I have needs, Sherry. You're just not meeting them. Let's just get this over with."
Sherry is staring at the floor, stunned by the irony of still loving a man even when he announces he wants to end their marriage.
"I know there's more to this life. There's a heaven, I'm sure now. Whatever you've done, I'm sure we can work it out."
"Don't you want to know what I've done?"
Sherry thinks of Agnes' daughter, Ruth, and the pain she must have from her mother's actions.
"No. Whatever it is...let's try to work it out. ...I love you. I forgive you." Sherry looks up at Tom, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Tom moves toward his wife and embraces her as she cries. Covering her mouth with his hand, he fires one shot through the side of her head.Sherry watches her husband lay the gun beside her body. He takes a shower like nothing unusual has happened, stripping off his bloodstained clothing and burying it in the woods behind the shop.
As Sherry stands over her own body, an old woman approaches her, smiling.
"Agnes?" Sherry mutters, sobbing at the sight of herself on the floor.
Agnes takes her by the hand. "Thank you, dear, for praying for me. Let's go now. We have a banquet to attend."
Sherry is gone, but Tom can't forget her last words..."I forgive you." They follow him to the jail cell he finds himself sitting in when he is convicted of premeditated, first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Darcy testifies against him at trial. Fr. Robert finds Tom in his cell, muttering to himself.
"Father, she forgave me. Father, she forgave me."
Fr. Robert takes out a prayer card and hands it to Tom. Hunched over, Tom reads the Act of Contrition aloud, sobbing, as his tears hit Fr. Robert's shoes. The light shifts in through the window, colors dancing across the floor. It is not the first time in his life that Fr. Robert sees the power of God's loving mercy in action.
(*Information about St. Gertrude and prayer for souls in purgatory is quoted directly from http://www.ourcatholicprayers.com/prayers-for-souls-in-purgatory.html. )
Dear Internet Traveler,
Welcome to my writer's blog, started about six years ago for fun. Over time, the writing I have posted has ranged from personal reflection, to Long Island history research, to tall tales for my own amusement, to feature articles for local newspapers. As you can see from topics listed here, I travel in many mental directions in regard to interests. Click on the tabs and labels to explore my strange mind which senses that you may be having a criss-cross day. If so, perhaps this blog will distract you. However, please note that if you tell me my blog is beautiful just to get me to advertise rhinoplasty surgery and cheap drugs from Canada in your comment, I will ask the gods to give you a tail that cannot be concealed.