A story from Waiting for October
By Adam Pepper
The drive is always the best part. The anticipation.
The tingles in my fingertips. The sweat in my palms. I wipe my hands on my pants while peeking in the rearview to see my cleanshaven reflection; a picture of them hangs from the mirror, bouncing off the dash. The weather is nice – balmy; the February snow is melting a bit.
It may seem strange that I should find joy in this ride, being what it is and all…but I do. I always do. Stranger still, perhaps, is that the fourhour drive is the only time I’m happy. Ever. I suffer through three hundred and sixtyfour miserable days and twenty hours a year simply for these four hours. When I’m in my car on the way there, I am happy. This is the tenth year I’m making this trip, and I plan to make many more. I will make this trip every year on this day until the day I die. That is a promise I made to them ten years ago. That is a promise I will never break.
She will be waiting there for me, I am quite sure. She is very dependable. She was always the reliable sister. The good sister. My wife, Jessica was the wild one. Not too wild, thank you very much. But when we first met she could be really impulsive. I remember once watching the midnight showing of…ah, hell, I don’t even remember what movie it was. But I do remember sitting in the back row staring at the screen, but not really staring – more like looking in that general direction. Jessica’s hand slid under my shirt, then down into my pants. Well, you can guess the rest but suffice it to say it was a good thing the theatre wasn’t very crowded.
Heidi, on the other hand, was always, and still is the reliable twin. My wife’s identical twin and every bit the spitting image. I mean identical. I could tell them apart, of course, but not by looking at them. They look that much alike. Light brown hair, hazel eyes, shapely curves like a woman should have – thin but not too thin. Funny though, when you get to know people – even twin sisters who grew up together and shared a bedroom for nineteen years – there are always little quirks and gestures that make them unique. Jessica talked more, and smiled more, too. Heidi has a certain glare when she gets mad or annoyed that only she can do. Jessica’s voice was a hair higher in pitch. There are always little things that make up the individual. Those quirks should never be taken for granted; they should be cherished.
I pull up Route 9 East in Brattleboro the same way I always do. The same way I’ve done for the last ten years. The same way I did that day, when I frantically searched for them…then found them.
Right off Route 9 is a side road. It’s a great shortcut that saves about ten miles off the drive if you’re heading northeast. I make a right turn onto it. Cherry Hill Road, it’s called. It’s a dirt road – doesn’t see much traffic. I pull to the side and park my car right next to the telephone pole. There are only two houses on Cherry Hill Road, and only one telephone pole.
I get out of my Honda and start up the path. I used to drive one of those SUVs with a nice burgundy paint job. Now I drive a plain black Honda. The SUV was great when I had a kid. Roomy, so all her toys wouldn’t clutter things up. Plenty of storage in the back, ‘cause even a weekend trip with a kid means lots of baggage. And best of all, the DVD player. Man! When you make the fourhour drive from just north of the city to Brattleboro, Vermont, that DVD player is golden. Used to keep Emily busy the entire ride. And busy meant quiet. Sure, I got sick of watching the same Elmo video over and over again – it was only half an hour long. But it was worth it.
There’s a big field just off Cherry Hill Road with a Private Property sign out front, but no one ever bothers us. Every year, Heidi and I meet in the field and have a picnic. It isn’t a celebration, but she tries to treat it like one.
“Hi, Jack,” Heidi says with a wide smile – a genuine one. She isn’t capable of being anything but genuine. Heidi is happy to see me. It’s a nice sentiment, but it isn’t one we share.
“Hi,” I say back. I smile too, but mine isn’t sincere.
She knows. She looks down at the ground. For a few moments there’s a painfully awkward silence as we stare at a puddle of melted snow. Then she says, “You got your nice shoes all wet and muddy.”
“I know.” I take a handkerchief out of the breast pocket of my suit and wipe my shoes off.
“I made all of your favorites.”
“Great!” I shout with way too much enthusiasm.
She reaches into her wicker picnic basket and takes out a red and white checkered tablecloth. She tosses it high and it glides down perfectly in a soft breeze. Not so much as a crease or wrinkle shows. Then, she reaches into the basket and pulls things out one at a time, holding each item up like a game show hostess.
“Turkey with Swiss, light mayo. And I brought some Dijon mustard in case you’re in the mood for that special sauce you love to whip up.”
I nod and smirk. I know how hard she’s trying but it’s the best I can do.
“Fruit. It’s all really ripe and fresh. Melon. Pineapple. Grapes. Small slices of apple, peach and pear. The slices are long and thin the way you like it.”
Another nod, another smirk. I really am trying to smile, but my facial muscles won’t cooperate.
“To drink I have iced tea, lemonade, and…” she slowly reaches into the basket then pulls out a bottle. “Merlot. Your favorite.”
“Thanks, but I’m driving.”
“Oh, stop it. One glass with lunch won’t kill you.”
Again, I nod.
“And for dessert, rice pudding.”
I love rice pudding, especially Heidi’s homemade rice pudding. I smile, and this time it’s genuine. “That looks great, Heidi. Thank you.”
“Of course. It’s my pleasure.”
We eat the meal in silence. There is nothing else to say. She tries to make eye contact once or twice, but I quickly look away. When I finish, I smile but can’t find the words to thank her. She doesn’t seem to mind. She reaches over to kiss me on the cheek,
but I stand up before she gets the chance.
“Bye, Heidi. See you next year.”
“I’ll be here,” she says, and I know she means it.
* * *
A man has certain expectations for his life. These expectations become more than just potential hopes and dreams. They become our essence. These expectations consume us. They make us what we are…and what we’re not.
I stare up at the ceiling of my studio apartment, arms clasped over my head as if about to do a sit up – ignoring the neighbor in 2G who’s yelling at the Chinese delivery guy – thinking about these very expectations. Not hope for the future, but the expectations I once had.
“You say white rice. Says right here.”
“Fried rice. I asked for fried rice! The girl on the phone can’t speak fuckin’ English.”
When I close my eyes, there are always three people in my mind’s eye. Jack Maddox is a husband. Jack Maddox is a father. Jack Maddox owns a house in the suburbs, mowing his own lawn even though he could easily afford a gardener. Jack Maddox is wealthy and attractive. Jack Maddox sees beautiful women every day of his life and never pays them any mind. Jessica is the only woman for Jack Maddox.
“Fine! I come back with your fried rice!”
I open my eyes, and all of those things are gone. Jack Maddox no longer is a husband. Jessica is dead. Jack Maddox no longer is a father. Emily is dead. Jack Maddox no longer owns a house in the suburbs.
I roll off the bed and walk towards the window, stepping over the pizza boxes and ignoring the piled up dishes in the sink. Through the metal security grate I see the Chinese kid mutter to himself then hop on his bike and pedal towards Foo Chow on Second Avenue.
So, who is Jack Maddox if not those things?
Jack Maddox is dead. He died ten years ago. Jack Maddox is buried in a field on Cherry Hill Road just off Route 9 in Brattleboro. I am what’s left.
* * *
There’s a light snow falling as I park my car in front of the telephone pole. I walk past the Private Property sign and my shoes sink into the fresh snow.
“Hi, Jack,” Heidi says with that pretty smile. She is a year older than the last time I saw her, but her beauty has not diminished in the slightest. I want to tell her that, but I can’t find the words. And I guess, on some level, I’m afraid she’ll misinterpret what I mean.
I keep that to myself and simply nod and say, “Hi, Heidi.” We embrace, and she tries to kiss me but I turn to the side. Her lips hit my neck. It tickles, slightly, but I don’t laugh.
She does laugh, perhaps out of embarrassment. Hearing the familiar perky giggle forces me to turn towards her. Her hazel eyes are so striking. Her lips are thin but not too thin. She is a beautiful woman. She is my wife’s sister. My wife’s twin sister.
“I brought all your favorites again this year.”
We eat in silence, like we do every year. But this time, just as she unwraps the tinfoil from the bowl of rice pudding she says softly, “Jack?”
“It’s been eleven years.”
“You’re still a young man.”
“Jack, I just can’t stand to see you like this.”
She pauses and as much as I don’t want to, I look directly into her pretty hazels. She is every bit as beautiful as Jessica. If I close my eyes, I can almost fool myself into thinking she is Jessica. I shut my eyes and inhale. They wear the same perfume, and use the same shampoo. With my eyes closed, I can almost make myself believe it’s her.
Until she says, “One day you need to get over her.”
“What did you just say?”
She grabs my shoulders as if about to shake me and says, “You need to move on with your life, Jack. You need to move on. It’s natural.”
For an instant, I get angry. My impulse is to smack her arms right off of my shoulders. But I pause, and take in a heavy breath of Honey brand perfume and that shampoo with the kangaroo on the bottle. How can I be mad?
“I can never move on.” I stand up and start walking slowly towards my car.
“Jack!” she says in a frantic tone filled with crackling phlegm. I turn and she outstretches her arm and says, “Your rice pudding. Don’t forget the rice pudding. I made it just the way you like it.”
I nod and smirk, then take the bowl from her and say, “I’ll bring the bowl back next year.”
“Keep it. I have plenty of bowls.”
* * *
Every man needs certain delusions to survive. Some deny it. Others simply choose to call it something else: a daydream; a fantasy. But in reality, we know they are delusions. They are things that aren’t true or real but we cling to them in order to survive. Kids have the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, adults have God. I have the field on Cherry Hill Road.
It was in that field that I found my wife and child murdered. It was there that I first realized things could never be the same.
That I could never be the same.
I eat the rice pudding directly from the oversized bowl, slowly and deliberately. Then, I pull out my scrapbook. I look through it just once a year even though I carry it with me everywhere, sort of like a security blanket. After I get home from the picnic, I look through the album. It’s a routine that I need in order to get through the next three hundred and sixtyfour days and twenty hours without blowing my brains out. I often fantasize of suicide but know I’d never really do it. It wouldn’t be right. Jessica and Emily were taken before their time, how can I voluntarily end mine? It just seems an injustice to them.
The scrapbook has pictures – lots of pictures. Me and Jessica. Jessica and Emily. Me and Emily. Jessica, me and Emily. Birthdays. Anniversaries. Mother’s days. Father’s days. I captured them all, and I treasure these pictures.
The last page of my scrapbook is a newspaper clipping. It is the only thing in the album that doesn’t make me smile. Yet I must look at it every year. Once a year I review the entire scrapbook. It is part of my routine.
The headline reads: Valentine’s Day Massacre in Vermont: Father finds bodies of murdered kin.
The article goes something like this, I’ve scratched out the names because it’s too painful to read them:
A wealthy Westchester businessman found the mutilated bodies of his wife and daughter in a field in a rural area of Brattleboro. <illegible>, age thirty and <illegible>, age three were raped, brutally sliced then their bodies were dumped in a field. “We have no suspects at this time,” Sheriff Ronald F. Hartman told reporters, “However we have several leads and are vehemently investigating each one.”
I stop reading there. I always stop reading there. Anyone who reads the newspaper knows that all the important stuff is in the first paragraph. I have the entire article clipped, but I never read past the first paragraph. It is part of my annual routine.
* * *
“Tough ride up?” Heidi asks.
“Yeah, hit a lot of traffic.”
“Took me four and a half hours.”
“Close to five for me,” she says as she bites into her sandwich.
“You should have taken my short cut at Queechy Lake, saves a good fifteen minutes.”
She nods, takes a sip of Merlot, then says meekly, “Jack?”
“What is it?” I snap. I hate to snap at her, but I just can’t help it. The tone of her voice lets me know I’m not going to like what she’s about to say.
“Jack, how come we never speak?”
“Nothing to say.”
“How come we never meet more than once a year?”
“Once a year I visit. I like having you as company. But if it’s too much trouble…”
She cuts me off and says, “It’s no trouble. But what I mean is, we live less than twenty blocks from one another, and the only time we meet is here. Can’t we meet on nicer terms?”
“I don’t think so.”
She sighs loudly and says, “How about now, can we talk now?”
“I’ll talk. You never ask me about my life.”
I realize how selfish that must seem to her. The last thing I mean to be is selfish where Heidi is concerned. She is without a doubt the nicest, most unselfish person I’ve ever met.
“Okay, Heidi. Tell me something about your life.”
“Ask me something. What do you want to know?”
“Where do you work these days? Still a paralegal for Himmelfarb and Schier?”
“No! Don’t be silly. I graduated law school years ago.”
I laugh, then scratch my head and say, “You’re right. I’m sorry I never take an interest in your life. I just get preoccupied sometimes.”
“I know. I understand. Ask me something else.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?” It’s a natural question, but as soon as I ask it, I wish I could take it back.
“No. Not ever.”
“Never? Come on, Heidi. You’re a beautiful woman. Talented and smart. Well off. There must be tons of guys asking you out.”
“There have been a few. But I always say no.”
Very quietly, almost inaudibly, she says, “Because my heart belongs to someone already.”
I look down at the picnic basket, then reach over for the bottle of wine. I take a long swig right from the bottle and ask, “Do you believe in love at first sight, Heidi?”
She shrugs. “I suppose.”
“I fell in love with your sister the very first day I met her.”
“Really?” she says, now smiling that great smile as her voice perks up. “That blind date that Jenny McGrath fixed you two up on!”
“Absolutely. From day one I knew she was the only girl for me.”
“Man. That was so long ago. You two were just kids. You couldn’t have been thinking about marriage at that age.”
“Not in that sense. But still, I knew. It’s weird. I mean, you know me, I am the least spiritual guy there is, even before all this happened. But when I first saw your sister in that black and pink polkadotted shirt…I knew.”
“Oh my god! That shirt. I remember that shirt.”
“So do I. I’ll never forget that shirt.”
We smile at each other and finish our meal. The rice pudding is just as tasty as ever.
* * *
Being alone in a big house is unbearable. I’ll never forget when I bought my house. I expected to live there forever, but once I was all alone, it was too big. I wanted something small. Something that would look full. I don’t really like it, but I stay here anyway. I doubt I’ll ever move.
It’s noisy, but I like it that way. There’s a baby crying. The neighbors upstairs are shuffling around, as usual. The guy next door is yelling at the pizza delivery guy.
“I said no anchovies!”
“Sir, you specifically asked for anchovies.”
“No you dipshit! I specifically said no anchovies.”
“Alright. Alright. Take it easy. I’ll go get you another pie.”
“Hurry up, man. I’m hungry.”
It might sound silly, but I enjoy listening to my neighbor holler at the deliver guy every night. It reminds me that I’m still on planet Earth. My neighbor is great for keeping my focus on the present.
I walk past the mirror, ignoring the stragglyhaired, unshaved man in it, and yell into the security grate of my opened window, “2G, keep it down.” We’ve been neighbors for a decade, and I’ve never learned his name, nor he mine. “I’m trying to get some work done.”
“Hey, fuck you!” he yells back, then punches his side of the wall that separates our apartments.
I open the grate, stick my head out the window and yell, “Knock it off. You’re gonna break your hand, man.”
He sticks his head out and says in a surprisingly calm tone, “I’ll break my hand any time I goddamn please. Okay?”
I throw up my hand in mock surrender and say, “Fine. Just keep it down a little. Please.”
He nods his pudgy face while blowing a lipfart. I really don’t care if he quiets down or not, I just felt like arguing with him.
The calendar that hangs from my wall reads February 4. Better take my suit to the cleaners and make an appointment at the barbershop.
* * *
“The sky is really gray,” she says. “Sure looks like snow.”
“They’re forecasting a blizzard.”
“I brought all your favorites again this year, Jack.”
“I have something extra special this year, Jack.” I’m fully expecting homemade rice pudding, but instead she pulls off her sweatshirt to reveal a black and pink polkadotted shirt. One I haven’t seen in about twenty years.
“Wow. That’s the shirt,” I say, sort of dumbfounded but not sad at all.
“You recognize it?”
“Of course I do. It’s the shirt Jessica wore the day we met. The day I fell in love with her.”
“It’s the shirt, alright and it still fits.”
I smile at that. She really is just as thin as she was twenty years ago.
“But the shirt isn’t Jessica’s. It’s mine.”
“What, did she borrow it that day?”
“Nope.” She’s looking at me in a way I’ve never seen before. I thought I knew every mannerism and every facial tick Heidi had. But she is looking at me in a way that she never has before. “I wore the shirt that day.”
“Your first date, Jack. It was with me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Jessica came down with the flu the day before your date. She begged me to fill in for her. Jenny said such good things about you and she didn’t want to blow it. So, I filled in.”
I scratch my head, trying to digest what I’m being told. “It was only that one time, you see. You couldn’t tell us apart yet. You didn’t know us.”
“Why are you telling me this now?”
“Don’t you see, Jack. You fell in love with me at first sight. You fell in love with Jess later, but that first date was me.”
“It was you?”
“That was twenty years ago. It means nothing.”
“It means everything. It means we have chemistry.”
“No. It doesn’t mean that.” She wraps her arms around me and pulls me close. I don’t fight, but I don’t exactly go along either. I just lean against her body, stiff as the telephone pole I can see over her shoulder slightly blurred by the crosswind of snow that’s begun to fall.
“I fell in love that day, too, Jack. I, too, believe in love at first sight. I couldn’t hurt my sister, but I always secretly regretted it.”
“Not getting the chance to be with you myself.”
“I’m sorry, Heidi. But it’s too late.”
“No. It isn’t. We’re right for each other. Jessica would understand. She would give her blessing. I know she would.”
“I can’t give my blessing.”
“Please, Jack. It’s time to move on with your life.”
“My wife and child were murdered. I can never forget that.”
Heidi shakes her head, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth again. Her hands go to her face as she starts to sob loudly. For the first time, she looks ugly to me.
“No,” she whispers.
“They were murdered. I killed them.”
“That’s not true,” she says just bawling like a schoolgirl.
I get up and wipe the sweat from my forehead, then start towards my car. She picks up her things and quickly follows me. When I get to Cherry Hill Road, my car is right where I left it. Parked next to the pole.
“Why did I take this goddamned short cut?” I ask, without turning around to face her.
“You have to move on with your life.”
“The fucking Elmo tape blasting! The kid screaming, and Jessica yelling at me to slow down! I got distracted.”
“Please, Jack. Stop torturing yourself.”
“It was dark. I was tired. But I had to keep my precious fourhour schedule.”
“It’s over, Jack. You have to let it go.”
I turn to face her, the bowl of rice pudding trembling in her hand. “It was an accident,” she whispers.
“I killed them.” I open the car door and step inside, then roll down the window. She hands me the bowl with the rice pudding.
“I’ll bring the bowl back next year.”
“Keep it. I don’t want to have anymore picnics in the snow.”
I start my engine and pull around the pole, ignoring the burgundy paint stains. My scrapbook sits in the passenger seat, and I open it to the last page while gunning my engine. There is a picture of a family I don’t recognize. My tires skid against the icy gravel. I pull the clipping from the book, crumple it and toss it out into the fresh snow.
– THE END –