Lisa Okon comes from a family of writers and editors and has been writing short stories since the age of ten. Most recently she completed her first novel. Lisa came to live in Israel in 1966 where she has established a private practice in marriage therapy and family mediation. She divides her time between Kfar Saba and Jerusalem (the source of her inspiration).
The following work is copyright © 2012. All rights reserved. No distribution or reprinting in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.
An Unusual Case
At the precise moment the two police detectives arrived on her doorstep to inform her of the discovery of the body Helen Jones was struggling to transfer a load of laundry from the washing machine to the clothes dryer. Slightly breathless from the exertion, the damp tangled sheets chilling her skin through the faded denim of her work shirt, she cursed in frustration at the intrusive sound of the doorbell. Many years later, when her life was different, when she herself was changed, what she would remember (how strange, the things we do remember) about that gray winter afternoon would be those silent curses, directed at the armful of wet sheets. But she would also remember the faces of the two strangers, their expressions of surprise. Who is this frowzy, harried housekeeper, this sloppily dressed woman, lacking even the rudiments of style? Whatever has become of the poised, articulate author of novels, known for her elegance and grace?
Making the effort, she set her features in an expression of innocent welcome and invited them to come inside, out of the windy autumn chill. Then, closing the door behind them, she took one last look at the sodden brown and yellow leaves littering the front lawn, the wet and bedraggled grass, framing the scene in her mind before turning to face her visitors.
She’d recognized immediately that they were from the police. Sturdily built, neat, they attempted to project a look that was both official and kindly at the same time. Hardly a simple task, she thought, and wondered what tragedy had brought them here. For there was something tragic too in the expression of the younger one, an expression he had not yet learned to conceal behind the officialdom and kindliness. As she looked into his clear brown eyes she tried to think of possible reasons for their coming, of people she knew in whose tragedies she might possibly play a part.
She led them into the living room where they seated themselves awkwardly on the beige sofa. She knew the sofa was uncomfortable. It was too low, too deep, a remnant of her fiasco of a marriage. She never sat there herself, but it was deceptive and now the two men, the older one and the younger one, were trapped in its soft embrace. She sat opposite them in a straight-backed chair, her back to the window, and tried to focus her attention on what they were saying.
It would appear to be a simple case of suicide. Nothing to indicate that it was anything else. The girl was found in her bed this morning by her landlady, fully clothed, with an empty bottle of sleeping pills on the bedside table.
“But who is she? Why are you here?”
The two men glanced sideways at each other. “We’ve already told you, Mrs. Jones.” There was a long pause. “Her name was Melissa Jordan. An acquaintance, surely.” It was the older detective who spoke.
Helen’s face was expressionless. “What makes you think that?”
Again the policemen exchanged looks. “Are you telling us that you didn’t know her then?”
Why should I know her? Is it to be assumed that I am acquainted with every coed my charming ex-husband ever bedded? “Melissa Jordan?”
“Yes, Mrs. Jones. As we’ve said.”
“No. I never did know her and I do not know her now.” The answer was clipped, impulsive and clearly untrue but Helen knew the endless questions that would follow if she told the truth. Questions she could not and would not answer.
“Odd you should put it that way, Mrs. Jones. We found her date book on her desk and your name and address were in it. It was an entry for Friday. In capital letters. Black ink. ‘Helen Jones,’ it said. Followed by your address.”
Helen looked the older man directly in the eye. “I have no idea why my name was written in her appointment book. Was there no note of explanation? A suicide note?” It was the obvious question for there had to be one. There was always a suicide note.
“You see, Mrs. Jones, that’s the unusual thing about this case. Everything seemed so well planned out. The way she was dressed. And how she was lying there, on the bed. But there was no note.”
How was she dressed? Is there a reason I am not being told?
“What was that you said, Mrs. Jones?”
“Nothing. I didn’t say anything.”
“Oh.” It was the younger of the two, and he was murmuring to himself, almost inaudibly, his eyes focused on a spot somewhere in the distance. “There was another unusual thing. It was the way the body was positioned, with her hands open at her sides, palms upward. And her hair, all spread out on the pillow. Like for a painting. Like somebody had laid her out. Specially.”
But did he really say all that, or was I imagining it? She could see the girl clearly. Ophelia, floating in the stream. “I’m sorry,” Helen said.
“We’re all sorry, Mrs. Jones.” The older detective sounded brusque. “Now can you think of anyone who might possibly have wished her harm?”
“Who would wish her harm?”
“That’s what we’re asking you.” He looked at her with condescension. “Well then,” he said when there was no response.
“Yes. Please let us know if there’s anything you can think of that may be of help to us in our investigation. Here’s my card.” He handed her his card.
It was like one of those television programs she never watched. She took the card. “Investigation?”
“We always investigate a death by unnatural causes.”
The three of them rose and she led them to the door.
When they were gone, her hands trembling slightly, Helen walked to the kitchen to pour herself a cup of coffee. I didn’t even offer them something to drink was her first thought as she took a carton of milk from the refrigerator. What would they think? The poor woman’s obviously in a state of shock. No, why would I be in shock if I didn’t know her? A woman lacking in manners then. But I’m not like that, they surely must know that, and everything else about me as well. Doesn’t everyone, in this claustrophobic college town? She brought the coffee into the living room and sat down in the wing chair by the fireplace, cupping the hot mug in her hands, letting them absorb the heat as self-pity gave way to anger. It wasn’t enough for him that he lusted after his students. That he was able to arouse in them such passion and such hopeless longing. Now one of them had actually died. The poor stupid child.
When she didn’t hear from the police for several weeks Helen concluded that the autopsy, proving without a doubt that Melissa had died from an overdose of sleeping pills, had led to the death being recorded as a simple case of suicide and the investigation had been closed. Still, it had become difficult for her to sleep. She was unable to write and had begun to feel a kind of heaviness in her limbs that bewildered her. She wondered if this was what was meant by ‘feeling one’s age.’ One morning, seated at her desk, attempting to focus on the monitor in front of her, she heard a light tap on her front door. It couldn’t be the police. Their knock was assertive. Demanding. Who could it be then, so early in the day? She knew she hadn’t made any appointments for today and she was not the sort of person that one simply dropped in on, uninvited. Unless, of course, you were Melissa Jordan, shivering on the doorstep with her silly little box of cookies. But those days were long past. She rose slowly to her feet and crossed the living room, composed her face and pulled open the door.
For part of a second it seemed as if there was no one there. Or someone playing a trick. Tapping on the door and tearing away to hide in the bushes. Then she looked down to see the little girl from across the street, bundled up in a pink quilted jacket, a knitted woolen cap pulled down over her ears, and at her side, hanging by a braided strap over one pink shoulder, a fluffy pink pocketbook, open at the top.
“Hello honey.” Helen felt embarrassed not remembering the child’s name.
“Hello Mrs. Jones.”
They stood on the porch, sizing each other up. Well, Helen wondered, mentally tapping her toe in impatience, what is it? “Would you like to come inside dear?”
“Oh no.” The child’s response was immediate and anguished.
This reaction startled and amused her. Do I really look like such an ogre? Helen forced a smile. “Is there something I can help you with then?”
“You got a ledder.”
“Sorry, I don’t understand.”
“A ledder. It came to our house but Mommy said it was a mistake. The mailman brought it when we weren’t here.” The little girl paused, taking a deep breath. “We were in Phoenix.”
“Ah, Phoenix. How absolutely lovely. I hadn’t even realized you were away. Were you gone long?”
“I missed a whole month of school.”
“My, that’s a lot of time to miss. Did you go with your mommy and daddy?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“She’s in heaven now. We went in a big airplane.” The child smiled, showing two missing teeth.
“That must have been very exciting. A big airplane.”
The little girl did not respond. It seemed she had run out of things to say. She began to fidget.
“So the mailman left a letter for me at your house while all of you were away in Phoenix. Would your mommy like me to come over and pick it up?”
“No. She sent me to bring it.”
“Thank you dear. Would you like to give it to me now?”
The little girl looked down at her empty hands, spreading her fingers like tiny fans. Slowly she raised her forearms, palms upward, her eyes widening in bewilderment.
Oh god, thought Helen, what now? She bent down to pat the child on the shoulder, touching the strap of the fuzzy pink bag. “Maybe your Mommy put the letter here.”
The child, looking more confused than ever, reached into her bag and pulled out a pale rectangular envelope. She gripped it tightly as Helen extended her hand. At last, after several moments’ hesitation, the child reluctantly handed it over. Then she turned on her heel and ran clumsily down the path to the sidewalk. Helen warily opened the envelope, removed its contents and walked slowly back into the house. She didn’t need to look for a signature, the neat unslanted handwriting on the envelope was familiar enough.
First a sip of brandy, maybe two, just to ‘calm my nerves’ (a cliché she would never even dream of using in her writing but somehow found appropriate). It took several minutes before she was finally able to place the empty glass on the coffee table and unfold the two thick pages. The letter was dated over three weeks ago; three weeks ago was when it should have arrived. Helen did the calculations in her head. She should have received the letter more than a week before Melissa’s death. “My dearest Helen,” the letter began.
My dearest, most beautiful Helen,
Please don’t hate me. I can no longer bear the thought of your hating me. I have done everything I could think of but the pain is eating away at my heart.
You know I never meant you any harm. You were the world to me, why should I want to harm you? Think back. It was two years ago that he called me to his office and all I could see was your picture, sitting on his desk, the two of you, smiling happily at the camera. The perfect couple. Why would I ever want to spoil that? And you had handed me my walking papers by then. Broken my heart. I was a broken hearted sophomore and in his cozy office, with the freezing wind tearing at the trees just outside his window, and your shining face before me, I burst into tears.
He is a sweet man, Professor Adam Jones. A good kind person. Of course you know about that. I needn’t go into the details of our shared love.
Later on I heard you’d tossed him out. People smirking behind their hands and gossiping in the corners. They said you felt you were too good for him, too renowned to be married to a simple English teacher in a dinky little college in the sticks. But I always defended you. I told them it wasn’t that way at all. They simply didn’t know you. It was just that you needed to be by yourself. For your work. That marriage to a sensitive man like Adam had become too much for you. You were married to your art, I said. I wanted to tell everybody how kind and loving you had been to me but then I thought, that’s our precious secret. You would be angry if I told.
I couldn’t bear it when he ended our relationship . The misery was so great I did not think I would live. I curled myself into a ball, crying into my pillow. This is what has become of my life, I thought, and spent my days weeping and moaning. A lovely heroine in life’s tragic story.
You didn’t see me then, I kept very much to myself, thinking and dreaming. A part of me continued going to classes, writing papers, taking exams. On the outside I was the same. Others, obtuse and oblivious, had no idea of the pain I was holding inside.
Finally, a voice told me to write. It came down from a radiant sky. I ran to my advisor and threw myself at his feet. He held me while I wept in his arms, behind the locked door. Afterward, he stroked my hair. Enrolled me in Prof. Whitston’s writing seminar. Kissed me on the forehead.
He is a hard man, Donald Whitston, but I think that underneath it all there is a kindness that he tries to hide. I thought that by writing I would at last find favor in your eyes. I begged you but you refused even to look at my stories. Now the words no longer come. I am lost. You must tell me what to do.
My dearest, sweetest Helen, I must see you now. Life holds nothing for me if I can not see you.
I can picture you, in your living room, so beautiful and aloof, reading this letter by the fireplace. The place where we used to sit, so cozily, just us two. I know it will take time for you to think about it but please, please give me some indication that you are willing to see me. A note. A phone call. Just the sound of your voice on my landlady’s answering machine will be enough. And I will come running to you, as I used to run, just to see your face. I know that deep down you have a kind heart.
Yours faithfully, till death do us part,
Helen slowly folded the letter and returned it to the envelope. She tipped the brandy bottle to refill her glass. She looked into the empty fireplace. She did not want to think.
She sat for over an hour in the wing chair, eyes closed, sipping brandy. Slowly words, whole sentences, began forming themselves inside her head and voices, some accusing, her own, others she did not recognize. No. It is impossible that I am to blame. No one can be held responsible for another person’s choice. It is unjust to think that. And the one who was with her, in her room? Surely someone was there. Why didn’t he prevent it? No, I will not accept that. The death of this poor child has nothing to do with me. How could I have prevented it? I never even received the letter.
She pressed her hands to her ears. I must talk to someone, she thought. A real person. Flesh and blood. To dispel these voices inside my head. But whom? She looked desperately around the room. Don, of course. Don Whitston. I will phone him. On Sunday, when I’m more focused. When he is sure to be free.
Helen Jones and Donald Whitston went back many years, to when he first arrived at the college, all the way from the New Hampshire woods, to work on his novel and teach creative writing. Inexperienced as a teacher, relatively unknown, Don had been hired as a last minute replacement for Helen who, in the middle of the fall semester, in a much talked-about fit of exasperation, had announced her resignation forthwith. She had already produced several bestselling novels whose royalties were bringing in a reasonable income and she was more than delighted to be able to thumb her nose at the entire English Department, whose politicking, intrigues, and hypocrisy she could no longer stomach. Adam, for his part, didn’t mind a bit. It was convenient, she realized, having her out of the way. The moment she and Don were introduced they recognized one another as kindred spirits and a friendship developed between them which, erratic though it was, managed to survive the years. Don, now an associate professor, still gave his seminars in creative writing. She had heard by way of the grapevine that they were enormously popular, nearly impossible to get into. When Melissa had written her that she was taking a writing course with Professor Whitston Helen had been duly impressed.
Sunday morning the sky was clear. It looked like the start of one of those bright October football days made especially for the young and fit. Don picked up the phone on the second ring. He sounded pleased to hear her voice. Helen started in without ceremony.
“Don, I’ve got to talk to you.”
“What is it, Helen?”
“Something’s happened. Do you think you could meet me?”
“You’re in luck, my dear. I happen to have this morning free. Shall I jump into my old jalopy and drive out to your place?”
“Oh yes. Thank you, yes. I’ll fix us a brunch.”
“Not necessary, Helen. A cup of coffee will do very nicely.”
“All right then, just coffee.” She remembered how careful he had become about his diet. “I’ll see you in a while.”
When Don strode through the front door, a look of concern on his lean New England face, Helen was trying to hide her embarrassment behind a wan smile. “Sorry,” she said, “I wanted to offer you freshly baked muffins but I burned them.”
She led her visitor into the still smoky kitchen and sat him down while she placed two cups of coffee on the wooden table. Then she seated herself in the chair opposite.
“Helen, you look like death warmed over.”
“Complimentary you are, as usual. In fact, I haven’t been sleeping very well.”
“So I can see.” He paused. “Is it that unfortunate business about Melissa Jordan?”
Helen nodded weakly.
Don reached over to give her hand a pat. “I can understand the strain you’ve been under, my dear. The two of you were close there for a while.”
“We were never close.” Helen felt her throat constricting. “It was Melissa who wanted to be close. Barging into my life like that. I don’t know why I allowed it.”
“Don’t play the innocent, Helen. You know exactly why.”
“Oh really? (“Smartass,” she wanted to add, but restrained herself.) Then tell me.”
“You were going through a rough patch. Don’t you remember those endless talks we had? You’d become convinced your work was worthless. Then, along came Melissa, brimming over with adulation, worshiping the very ground you walked on. You simply lapped it up.” He noticed the look of dismay on Helen’s face. “There there, you needn’t berate yourself for that. Anyone would succumb in those circumstances.”
“You may have a point,” she murmured. (“Bullshit,” she thought.) “But she wouldn’t leave me in peace. She insisted that I teach her everything I knew. Would you believe that? Everything I knew! And then she started coming to the house at all hours, with those dreadful cookies. Phoning me all the time. Bumping into me in the street.”
“Mightn’t you be exaggerating, just a tad?”
“Don, it was pathological. She was destroying my life. The only thing I could do to get rid of her was throw a fit.”
“We all know about your famous outbursts.”
“I’m so ashamed. To be gossiped about that way. And now they think I’m responsible.”
“Who thinks that?”
Helen’s mouth dropped open in dismay. “I’m sorry, I can’t imagine why I said that.”
“Helen, you must pull yourself together.”
“Easier said. You weren’t there, Don. Those two detectives. The way they kept repeating my name. Mrs Jones. But look, you knew Melissa. She was your student. Please tell me what she was like.”
“I would have thought you knew her better than I did.”
“I don’t think I knew her at all. Ever.”
Don leaned forward and reached for his coffee cup. He took a small sip and replaced the cup on the table. The coffee was cold. “If you think it might help, give you some insight into her character, I suppose I could tell you about her writing.”
“Melissa wrote about yearning. Yearning for experience. Knowledge. I’ll give you an example, the first story she handed in. It was about a young woman, a would-be writer, who bemoans the fact that she has nothing to say. She’s grown up in some backwater, this girl, but she’s finally run away from the stagnation and the boredom and is waitressing in some seedy diner in a Midwestern city. After a while, though, she comes to the realization that her new life is just as dull and as meaningless as it was before.” Don looked down ruefully at the cup with the undrinkable coffee.
“Is that the end? Does anything happen?”
“One day, down by the railroad tracks, the girl jumps onto a passing freight train. Trains have always fascinated her. She manages to pull herself up into a boxcar where she meets a couple of tramps who greet her warmly and commence telling her their life stories. They nourish her with food and drink and as the train speeds along the girl becomes enthralled. She laughs with them. She sings. She believes she is finally dipping her feet into the stream of life and forms the idea that by the end of the journey she will have achieved great wisdom.” Don paused. Sighed.
“And does she?” Helen was feeling impatient.
“In a sense that’s left for the reader to decide. That night the two tramps rape her, without pity, then throw her off the train, where she ends up in a ditch.”
“Oh my god.” Helen was shaken. “That was her first story?”
“Yes, written when she was nineteen. It was rather good for a first attempt. She was quite talented, actually.” He paused. “Of course I never told her.”
“Why ever not?”
“She was already too smug. Her smugness made her off-putting. She could have been quite attractive, given a touch of modesty.”
“But what about the story? Were you sure she made it up? How could you know this didn’t really happen to her?”
“Honestly? My reaction was the same as yours. So I invited her to my office for a conference and asked her directly.”
“That was blunt of you.”
“You know I’ve never been one to tread lightly. Well Melissa came in, all flushed and excited, I have no idea what she was expecting. I had her sit down and told her of my concerns. At first she didn’t react, sort of froze, but I could feel the hostility. Then she looked me straight in the eye and said she was dismayed and disappointed that I could even imagine such a thing. She had the chutzpa to throw back in my face the very words I use in all my beginning seminars. That no story written in class must ever be assumed to be true. And, as if that weren’t enough, she went on to remind me of the way I instruct my aspiring young writers to give free rein to their imagination. To write, without inhibition, about anything that comes into their heads. She certainly put me in my place, that one. I was left speechless.”
Don? Speechless? Helen almost wanted to laugh. Maybe it was right, asking him to come. Having him sit here, so present, in her kitchen, with his oversized feet planted so firmly on the ground. Or maybe it was just being able to talk, at last, about Melissa. To say her name out loud. To feel the walls of her house, sturdy and upright, not collapsing inward, crushing her with their weight.
Don noted the change in her expression. He leaned back. “Would you like to hear a confession, Helen? When I heard you voice on the phone this morning, so plaintive and charming, the thought struck me that you needed help with your own writing.”
“Another one of my ‘rough patches?’” (You have got to be kidding, she thought.)
“It’s happened before, you know. Your turning to me for advice and support.”
“That was once, Don. A long time ago. We’ve both grown up since then.”
“Do we ever really grow up, Helen?”
When her guest had finally been sent on his way Helen thought about the undrinkable coffee, the ruined muffins, and found herself wondering. Don Whitson was as patronizing and as irritating as ever. Why she had even considered unburdening herself to him she could not imagine. Yet, he had made her angry and somehow this made her feel stronger. But when the kitchen had been put to rights, the cups returned to the shelf, the burnt muffin tins washed and dried, Helen found herself back in the wing chair by the fireplace, enveloped in the gray cloud of her sadness. It was more than a ‘rough patch’ she was going through when she first met Melissa. It had been a time of pure desperation. She shuddered, remembering it. Although her most recent novel had met with the anticipated popular success, Helen knew how seriously flawed it was. She had labored over this one longer than the others, shutting herself away for weeks on end, writing and rewriting, weeping with frustration, until she could no longer bear to read the words she had written. It was only due to the pressure of her editor and publisher, whom she could still not bring herself to forgive, that it had been published at all. But it wasn’t just this sad excuse for a book that pained her. Her whole life was falling to pieces. Nothing stirred her imagination. Nothing inspired her. She knew that she was no longer desired by her husband and felt as dried out as an old stick of wood, waiting to be tossed into the fire and burnt to a crisp. Then Melissa Jordan had come into her life. Into it and out of it and right into Adam’s bed.
She remembered how lovely and fresh Melissa looked, the day of the book signing three years ago. It was a day like today, a cloudless October sky, the trees all red and golden, painting the light as you stepped beneath their branches. Her face had been flushed, she was almost breathless, explaining that she’d been running for fear of missing the event. I so much wanted to meet you, Mrs. Jones. May I call you Helen? Your books have meant so much to me. And Helen, against her better judgment, had invited her to the house for tea. Out of curiosity, she told herself. What did she really want from this girl? Certainly not her cheap flattery. Maybe Melissa reminded her of herself, as she once was, so full of life and wonder. Perhaps the girl held out the promise of renewal. Through intimacy would come self-discovery and she, Helen, jaded and bitter, would become young again, infused with a new vitality, alive. But the sad truth, the great disappointment, was that Melissa provided her with nothing. The girl seemed hollow. As if eaten out from within. And Helen was tired. Possibly, had she somehow managed to gather her strength, allowed herself to take the risk, she might have been able to discover that precious thing inside Melissa, her spirit perhaps, that would draw her close. Perhaps she was afraid. Ultimately, she had neither the energy nor the will. All she felt in the shivering girl’s presence was weariness and boredom. And now, alone in her chair, under the ominous gray cloud, all she could think about were the last days of Melissa Jordan’s life. Waiting for the note that never came. Did she spend the evenings under a grey cloud of her own, winding a long strand of hair around her finger, listening for the sound of the phone? Had she changed, grown pale and gaunt with despair, as Helen herself was growing now? I will never know, Helen thought. Never know what happened to that wretched girl to convince her that her life, that the world itself, was irreparable. Could it have been some act of violence, perhaps, shattering all hope? Some final act of abandonment? I could have known. She would have told me.