(A novel by Susan Overturf)
I probably should have been born in a time when there were no telephones. It’s not that I don’t appreciate advancing technology — I couldn’t manage without my computer. But telephones are another matter. They’re impersonal and you can’t see the person you’re talking to, which means no body language to interpret. As well, I hate being interrupted from whatever I’m doing, and I detest rearranging my schedule to suit someone else’s. I loved it when Caller I.D. came in. At least I could see who was calling before I picked up the receiver.
An early-morning call bothers me. People don’t usually call early unless there’s bad news to relate. A mother always thinks first of her children: they might be hurt or sick. It is a terrible Catch-22: I fear what’s going to be on the other end of the line, yet I have to know if my children are safe. So, when the phone rang at 6:30 a.m. the next day, I approached gingerly and hesitated, checking out the caller I.D. first. It read only “PRIVATE”, so that didn’t help me much except I knew my sons’ phone numbers and that wasn’t either one of them. My hand hovered over the phone, but curiosity got the better of me. I grabbed the phone on the fourth ring, just before my voice mail would kick in, and hesitantly said, “Hello?”
It’s bad enough to worry that you will receive bad news on the phone, but perhaps worse still if no one speaks once you have spoken. There was no voice on the other end of the line, but I could hear what sounded like traffic noises in the background. “Hello?” I said again. “Is anyone there?”
Still no answer, but continuing sounds of traffic. And then, there was a distinct click, and the dial tone hummed. As I set the phone back down on the receiver, I was mostly annoyed and quite glad that there had been no bad news. And, after all, wrong numbers are common; I had no reason to think that it was anything but that. Because of the note, however, I thought it might have been the note-writer escalating his warning.
It was my morning to go visit Miss Hattie, so I poured myself a glass of juice, made some toast, and read a book while I ate. Ten o’clock arrived quickly and I went down to join Miss Hattie for tea. She let me in and we settled ourselves in the living room, as always.
“So how is your investigation going?” she asked.
I told her about the note, my visits to the principal and the teacher, and my short conversation with Mark.
Miss Hattie showed her doubt. “Oh, Dorthea, I don’t think Mark had anything to do with it. He’s been here a long time and I’ve never seen anything but acts of kindness from him.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that. Perhaps I’m getting paranoid, and suspecting everyone.”
Miss Hattie chuckled. “Don’t worry. You’ll figure it out. How is your work on your family going?”
“The most important thing I’ve done,” I said, “is that I have affirmed my right to be here, as well as my uniqueness as an individual. I know that both of my parents were emotionally wounded and incapable of setting boundaries. I think I’m learning to forgive them. I’m letting the anger and resentment go.”
“That’s good.” Miss Hattie waited for me to continue. She was the best and cheapest counsellor I’d ever had.
“I know now that my own inner courage and strength enabled me to endure the abuse, even while developing an identity much different than my parents’. When I was a little girl, I often wondered why my mother allowed my father’s abuse, and I was sometimes angry with my mother for not keeping me safe. I think now that by staying with my siblings and me, my mother most likely thought that she was protecting us. In her warped sense of reality, she thought that she could prevent her husband from hitting her if she kept her house clean and made good meals. Sadly, I also think she probably thought her children would be safe if her husband hit her instead of them.“
Miss Hattie nodded. “Abused women seem to act in very strange ways, don’t they?”
I agreed. “Despite the difficulty of understanding this, even now as an adult and a mother, I suspect that my mother chose to stay. In doing so she relinquished her own rights and subjected her children and herself to unnecessary cruelty.“
“Yes,” Miss Hattie nodded. “It’s ironic, isn’t it?”
“And I wonder if Eileen Fuller did the same thing with Catherine.”
“It’s certainly possible, of course.”
I shook my head, as though that would change the past. “I’m sorry that my mother died before I ever talked to her about these things. I wonder if, even in her later life, even after my father was dead, she would have talked to me. I think she would have remained silent. She had done it for so very long.“
Miss Hattie asked, “Would you like some more tea, dear?” She picked up the teapot.
“No, thanks, I’m fine.” I twisted the empty cup in my hand and my thoughts remained with my mother. “You know,” I said, “maybe it’s too late to talk to my mother about these things, but it‘s still possible that I could get through to Eileen Fuller.“
“You must be careful, Dorthea. Abused women often don’t change.”
“I know, but I think my mind’s already made up. I decided just yesterday that I should return to talk to Eileen. You know, I went back down to the library the other day to see if I could find any new information. I looked up the engagement and wedding announcements again, staring at the photographs of Eileen and David, trying to see what came from within. Eileen’s wealth is obvious and, from my perspective, she must have been overprotected. I think Eileen’s life has been carefully choreographed.”
“By whom?” Miss Hattie asked.
“Probably her parents first, and then her husband.”
“Do you know much about Eileen’s parents?”
“Not a lot, no. Perhaps that’s another avenue to explore.”
Miss Hattie and I chatted about less complicated things for a while and then I left, knowing that I would see her again in a week. I walked up the flight of stairs to the fifth floor. As I opened the door to my apartment, Mark stepped out of his. “How ya doing, Dorthea?” he asked.
“Oh, fine.” As he had spoken, I had seen out of the corner of my eye a piece of paper on the floor. I was hoping that Mark had not seen it, and I tried to remain still and calm. Apparently, I was not totally successful.
“Hey, are you all right?” Mark asked. “You look a little pale.”
“I’m fine, thanks,” I said, “but I must get inside and make a phone call.” I stepped inside my apartment, quickly closing the door behind me, and no doubt Mark was left somewhat mystified. I told myself that I’d make it up to him later; maybe I’d buy him a cinnamon roll down at Delaney’s since he said they were his favorite.
I took a deep breath and looked at the note, identical to the first: “STAY AWAY. THIS IS NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS.” Did the writer know I had gone out or was it just coincidence that the note was delivered while I was gone? Or had he (if it was a “he”) intended for me to receive it while I was at home? Was there someone in the building sending me these notes, watching my every move, knowing my comings and goings? I immediately thought of Mark again, who certainly could watch me carefully, but I didn’t want to think it could be Mark, and Miss Hattie had told me she didn’t think it could be him. I thought it was more likely to be David Fuller, but no matter who it was, someone was watching me and was concerned I would learn something that they didn’t want me to know. I wanted to find justice for Catherine, and get Eileen Fuller out of an abusive situation if she was in one. I’m not a gambler, but I would have bet pretty good odds that the note writer had not expected the warning to heighten my curiosity and increase my courage, rather than scare me away from seeking further answers.
Disclaimer: Let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.