By Timothy Gray
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. I just want some peace!” Charlotte exclaimed. The phone jarred her from a comfortable reading position in bed. She picked up the receiver, and it never crossed her mind that such a late call might be bad news.
“Charlotte? Oh, good. You’re awake.”
This was bad news. Margaret Kasten from church, the woman in charge of coffee in Fellowship Hall, among other self-appointments.
“Hi, Margaret,” Charlotte said with exasperated flatness.
“Look, I am sorry to call you so late but I know you like being up. I just thought of something for tomorrow. Could you stop by Warehouse Unlimited on your way to church? You have a membership and we could do with one of those huge boxes of coffee packets. Do they have a box with varieties like hazelnut and vanilla? That would be so great. It would be nice to surprise the crowd with some new flavors. Henry can take a break from mopping the lobby to help carry it in.”
“Sure, Margaret.” It was not worth asking why she did not know last week they’d be out of coffee this week. “Henry doesn’t need to stop mopping for me. I can bring the box in. I’ll be there early to practice.”
“Charlotte Hawley, no one plays the organ like you do. With such feeling!”
Instead of “Spare me,” she said “Thank you.”
“Don’t let me forget. I’ll let Ellen in the church office know she must reimburse you for the coffee. I’ll let you go, but before I do, I have to ask. Have you heard what happened?”
“Apparently not. What are you talking about?”
“It’s all over the news. They even interrupted that detective program. This kind of thing keeps normal people from feeling safe. You won’t believe it, and it happened so close to you. A man escaped from Willoughby. That’s practically up the road from you. And they haven’t found him yet. It’s that David guy, I think. Remember when his picture was all over the place? He was the one who…well, you remember. It was in the news. I can’t even say it.”
“They’ll catch him. They always catch escapees,” Charlotte said stoically.
“That is sensible, Charlotte. Most people would be afraid that a killer would traipse through the cornfield and into their cellar or on their porch, especially tonight when they are predicting fierce wind. If I were you, I’d lock my doors, close the shades, and turn all lights off. You don’t want some madman thinking you’re a haven, there all by yourself. A lighted house at the end of a street like yours is a magnet in this weather for someone desperate. Whatever you do, dear, don’t listen to the radio. You’ll just scare yourself silly with updates.”
“Thanks, Margaret. I’ll keep my mind on tomorrow’s music and the trip to Warehouse Unlimited. I do thank you for calling and will see you at church.”
“I hope so,” Margaret said as Charlotte was hanging up.
Charlotte placed her book on the nightstand and got out of bed. She was trying to improve herself with Dostoevsky but could not manage more than a few pages at a time before getting drowsy. Just after midnight. Not too late for a bit of chamomile and a splash of milk, the way her father drank it. She wondered how on earth Margaret Kasten could enter church without the building incinerating. Margaret was not a bad woman but she certainly tested the limits of one’s charitable feeling. She probably oversaw Fellowship Hall just to keep track of who was there and what they said.
Margaret’s own gossip was faulty. David Pflug hanged himself in a jail a dozen years before. He was no escapee. The man on the loose now was someone else. If it were true. She rose from her bed and steered herself over to the kitchen to fix the tea.
Charlotte tried focusing on the water on the stove instead of Margaret’s warning. Nevertheless the hair stood up on the back of her neck. She was bathed in kitchen light, a target for prying eyes in the darkness. Other lights were on that made the house seem warm. A sense of urgency compelled her, but she slowed her pace to keep calm as she turned them off and made sure the window shades throughout the house were pulled. “What nonsense that woman spouts.”
There was an eerie quality to pulling down blinds in the dark. She glimpsed out her yard across to the cornfield. In the moonlight flickering through fast-moving clouds, it would be easy to spot an interloper. Or so she told herself. She held her breath to keep quiet and looked to the distant trees and the unsettling way they moved in the wind. She half expected to see a face staring at her from between the branches before she fully lowered the blind.
In the kitchen she poured boiling water over the tea bag by the light of a small lamp. Chamomile has calming properties, the tea box said. Which will come in handy after a late night call from Margaret Kasten. The woman was unstoppable.
Reverend Price at church often consulted Charlotte. She gave her opinion freely whether talk was of changing the service or choosing the readings. He was handsome with silver hair and a long face. He looked tired most of the time. If Margaret was around during a talk, she always ended up inserting herself between Reverend Price and Charlotte, even if either was in mid-sentence. It bothered her that Margaret was so pushy.
She sipped her tea, wishing she had a windmill cookie handy. Charlotte pretended to feel normal instead of unusually alert. Reverend Price was not someone to get jealous about. He was available—that is, widowed. Her regard for him was purely situational. She liked the idea of Reverend Price more than she liked the actual man. He was too sedate, and everything he said had a measured tone that took the pulse out of life. You could trust him, she thought, but he had no gumption or vitality. He had the same sincerity with everybody, which somehow made it seem less real.
The kitchen lamp cast a warm glow on her hands, circled around her cup. A shadow flickered across the shade of the kitchen window.
Charlotte shuddered. She lost interest in her tea and turned out her lamp. That shadow must have been a branch, she first thought, but she knew there was no tree near. She pulled away from the table and cautiously stepped toward her room. The awareness of her effort made the darkness seem dangerous. Each quiet step sounded distinctly on the floorboard. She rushed onto the bed as if someone might grab her ankles from beneath. Charlotte pulled the blanket and sat up against the headboard.
She calmed herself, breathing slowly and listening. There were no intrusive sounds, no footsteps or creaking wood. No one was out there. She was safe at home, upright in bed. Margaret just loved trouble, and when she could not find it she made it up. “That David guy,” Charlotte mocked her. “She gets everything wrong.” A shadow across the shade on a windy night was just a trick of the imagination of a tired mind.
She considered turning on the radio or searching the internet. Without fully admitting so, she did not want to create a traceable noise or emit light. She would have liked to know details of the prison escape. Margaret was so dramatic that Charlotte could not determine if the escape was recent. Maybe it was part of a Matlock plot and poor Margaret got confused. Maybe the situation was over already and the escapee had been caught.
This prisoner. Who was he and what brought him to prison and a life of crime? Her grandmother told her about the Depression and down-on-their-luck men who would show up at the kitchen window asking for a piece of bread or chores to do. Charlotte always imagined them in the black and white stripes of prison uniforms she knew from the movies. Scary, unshaved, but ultimately harmless. When she closed her eyes as a girl, sometimes the images would magically appear and morph into leering caricatures of evil and bring her out of a reverie.
If an escapee showed up on her porch or infiltrated her cellar, he might be the misunderstood kind who would drink a cup of coffee, eat a snack, and respectfully leave, relieved at finding a decent person. He might also be the other sort. Desperate, frantic, nothing to lose, and seconds away from a violent outburst. Best not to take a chance either way. What were the odds? I am safe, she told herself but the strain steered her mind toward a beloved memory.
Jimmy the E. She smiled at the thought of his beautiful face, her first love, and the first boy to ask her for a date. They saw each other for a few months until he left the area. He wanted to be a county sheriff one day. Charlotte, in her infatuated teens, imagined him tracking down an endless succession of unshaved, dangerous, grim, black-and-white-striped men straight out of post office most wanted posters.
Jimmy would prevail of course. James Edward Belken had the power of purity and goodness on his side. His hair was always cut, even in the days of big hair. County sheriffs are always neat, Charlotte recalled him saying. The phrase felt contemporary, even though decades had passed since she had heard those words. He was preparing for the future.
She unexpectedly wanted to cry because of all the things she did not know about him. Ordinary things someone else was privileged to know. How he took his coffee. Would he drink vanilla or hazelnut flavors? She never learned if he became a sheriff. Or how his face had aged, whatever happened to the blue eyes and dimples, and most of all, whether life had changed him in unexpected ways, whether he was kind and gallant still.
Charlotte had asked him by the bleachers how come they called him “the E.” He smiled and said, “My middle name. I’m the E.” He grinned his response as if the logic of the endearment were self-explanatory.
“Oh my,” Charlotte gasped in the darkness. “How some people just disappear.” She thought of the cornfield, the vast expanse of night, and the quiet dark house as if they were somehow all that was left of James E. Belken. “Landscape remains,” she sighed. “And people just move on.”
Charlotte imagined the nineteen-year-old face of Jimmy the E. “Oh, he was so...” She exhaled, grappling for the right word. “Fine” was not the right word. She tried to think of a word as extraordinary as he was. The image of the square-shouldered blond sheriff wannabe, burnished by halos and distance began to bring a smile to her face until she heard the thud on the porch. A heavy step, then came a knock.
Half past one. Nothing good happens after midnight. The knock was slow, steady, and deliberately paced, designed to wake someone with repetition. Knock. Knock. Knock. Charlotte could hear a fist hit the wood three, four, five times. She strained to hear with her breath held. Did the man ask if someone was inside? She could not make out the words. Was it wind on the trellis?
She tensed and used all of her energy to stay still, determining not to call 911 lest the sound of her voice encourage him. As she quelled her panic, she thought of Vern, the aging, peripatetic handyman who had left that afternoon before finishing his work. He was a sentimental drunk, and she almost felt relief. Of course it was him, inappropriately late with an apology and a blurry promise to finish the next day, even if it was a Sunday.
The knocking, however, seemed more deliberate and measured than Vern would be capable of mustering on a drunken spree. No one here, I’m not home, Charlotte pleaded silently. He would give up, this intruder, when he realized there was no shelter for him.
He did not give up and knocked with the same plodding persistence. She feared his desperation, believing the same phenomenon that gave a parent the superhuman strength to lift a car off an endangered child would endow a frantic criminal with the strength to unhinge a solid door.
This would not be happening if I had ended up with Jimmy the E, she thought as her eyes welled. She was smart enough to know that was a powerful emotion—not a fact. Who knew what life would be like with him but at the very least she would not be in this present circumstance. She could hear Margaret Kasten talking to Ellen at the church. “Did you hear about Charlotte Hawley? Oh, how awful. I’ll bet I was the last one who spoke to her, poor dear. I told her to be careful.”
Oh my God! She sat up and threw the covers off. The man outside is not going away if the house is empty. He will break in and try to hide here! She bolted out of bed and turned on the lights with an aggressive flick of the switch. She stomped. She turned the radio on. She put the TV volume full blast. She opened and closed a few closet doors with loud force.
The sounds of her determination almost drowned out the persistent thump of each knock. She contributed to the noise by chanting. “No one is going to enter my home.” She built up her courage by tossing out a few swear words, punctuating her mantra with the kind of language her tea-drinking father eschewed. She walked slowly and loudly toward the front door. She stood, lips mere inches from the wooden barrier between herself and chaos. With the support of the noise behind her, she yelled through the door. “Get off my porch and get off my property! I do not want you here! Go away!”
Charlotte broke into a sweat. The sensation of her own voice startled her. Nothing bad happened. No axe split through the door. No stone crashed through a window. No doorknob twisted in criminal rage. She was feeling exhilarated and ready to face the night without the aid of electronic noise. She walked to every gadget and turned each one off with ceremony. She decided to return to the door and yell again for the thrill of it.
Now that she was ready to rip, there was nothing to do.
The knocking had stopped. She paused and counted to ten. Charlotte had vanquished the intruder. In the ensuing stillness, she felt as if she had power over nature. The wind had subsided. She had energy to spare but she could feel the exhaustion lurking within. It is hard work to stick up for yourself. She was glad for the solid core door that had held violence at bay. She was also glad that she had realized the value of defending her home. It made her feel whole, and more connected to the property she had inherited.
During her doorway vigil, each minute filled her with a sense of achievement. The more time that passed, the less likely this man would return, and the more defiant she felt. Just try to come back and make trouble, she dared the fates. When a half-hour produced no more threatening noises, she made the trek back to her bedroom. She was exhausted but for the moment keenly alert. She put the radio back on and listened to the local station, straining to hear news of the escape.
Charlotte did not remember falling asleep. The Sunday morning sun had gently infiltrated her dreamscape. She occupied the same position as she had listening for news. It was not only the temperature that warmed her. She felt as if she had just gotten a visit from Jimmy the E. I was so happy to see him again, she said to herself. She recalled the dream of Jimmy sitting in her kitchen and then a cafeteria. He wore prison stripes and then a sheriff uniform. He was young from behind but then turned to her resembling Indiana Jones. He spoke with warm praise and confidence in her. Something about always knowing she could ward off a criminal, and that he was proud. He said her breath smelled of cloves and a kiss was the sweetest thing…
The morning was so bright that it was difficult to imagine the pressure of the night before. Charlotte started the coffee maker and the waffle batter, sprinkling a little cinnamon in both the flour and the grounds. She almost levitated from contentment. As she prepared breakfast, the radio announced that Bob Dillon had been recaptured that morning after an escape from Willoughby. “I suppose Margaret could mix up names like David and Bob,” Charlotte said with a sense of magnanimity. The announcer described Dillon as a burglar, thief, and drug dealer. Not a murderer, but still no one you would allow in after midnight.
“Well, desperation is desperation,” Charlotte said. She waited patiently as butter melted into her waffles before she reached for syrup. Practicing today was going to be a pleasure. Her gratitude would stretch from her fingers into the keys. She could not wait to perform for the day’s services. She felt indulgent toward Reverend Price, gumption or not. She could handle Margaret, and would take great satisfaction in not telling her of Bob Dillon’s appearance on her porch. It would keep the meddler from clucking about in Fellowship Hall.
She cleaned up the breakfast mess, and then Charlotte walked out the back door, scanning the cornfield in the distance. It had a homey and comforting appearance, just as when she was a child. Its presence was an eternal truth. An intruder’s footsteps could not sully its fertile ground. She backed out of the driveway, focusing intently on staying out of the ditch. She reached the highway, then put the car in drive, and headed to Warehouse Unlimited. The memory of Jimmy the E inspired her, touched her, and in a supernatural way made her feel as if he had actually communicated with her. She got through the night with the inexplicable tingle that he had stepped in to help. "Sheriff Jimmy the E," she said with a smile.
Focused on maneuvering toward the road, Charlotte failed to see Vern’s tool belt fastened to the porch rail, with the hammer end able to swing low against the door in the high wind. She would not see it upon her return either, for at that moment, Vern was on his way to her house with pious remorse for not completing the work the day before. Miss Hawley was so nice that he had to surprise her with a job well done before she got back.
Timothy Gray is a Chicago-based editor and writer. His work includes several essays on opera and book reviews. He belongs to a monthly writing group, where, after years of writing essays occasioned by the inner life, he is exploring the short story form.