A GENTLEMAN CALLER - J.F. JUZWIK
Originally published at CROOKED in May of 2009
Penelope Francis Maitland was a handsome woman. No one had ever remarked to her, or about her, that she was beautiful, or even attractive. Handsome was the word they used to describe the way she looked. But it was always coupled with an attestation of her impeccable personal hygiene. Father had always stressed the importance of maintaining an immaculate state of one’s mind and body at all times. The sessions of intense prayer provided the necessary cleansing of the soul, and the time she spent with Father in his corner room had truly purified her. His big, strong hands on her--in her--preparing her, exorcising the demons that held her captive.
His assuming sole charge of her salvation was what she was most grateful for, and proud of. Mother had never shown any interest in her to speak of, even when Penelope was a child. But, Mother had really begun to distance herself from Father after Sissy was born. By the time Penelope was twelve, and Father had begun her training, Mother was already occupying a separate bedroom, and would only remain in the same room with Father during meals.
Mother had fawned over Sissy some after she came along, but then pulled away from her after the accident, into her own dark, little world. Penelope believed Mother had been lost long before either of her daughters were born.
Margaret Kittering had been a beautiful, young woman of nineteen when she and her parents moved to Lake Meade. Her father had retired with a comfortable pension, and was looking for small-town charm and quietude. Lake Meade certainly had an abundance of both. The residents were very community-oriented, but not averse to newcomers. The Kitterings were welcomed with open arms by all the townsfolk.
Margaret’s mother was a homemaker who really enjoyed caring for her family, and her father derived great personal satisfaction from hanging a birdhouse he had made himself, and seeing the roses he had planted bloom in the spring. Margaret had been concerned as her father’s retirement approached. She had read articles and seen documentaries about men who retired, and a lot of them simply couldn’t cope with it. They no longer felt needed or necessary, and just wasted away and died. Their spouses followed soon after. Margaret’s parents were very close and, even after being married almost 40 years, very much in love. She knew if anything were to happen to Father, Mother wouldn’t be able to go on.
But her fears were totally unfounded. Jeremy Kittering had worked hard all his life as a floor supervisor in a manufacturing plant. He had also been looking ahead and planning how he would spend his time once he no longer had to work. There would be no wasting away for him. He had a tremendous love of the outdoors, and gardening. He loved to read and even tried his hand at writing a bit of poetry now and again. Not that he ever had any plans to get anything published. He would write lovely words just for the pleasure of writing them.
Her mother, Anna, was an elegant woman. That was the word Margaret felt best described her: elegant. Whether she was washing dishes, hanging laundry, or playing the radio and singing along with the lilting ballads, her eyes were always bright, and she always wore a warm smile. She filled their home with love and sunshine, and no matter where they lived, Margaret knew that if her mother was there, all would be right with the world.
Margaret adored her parents, and being with them. She always felt safe and content. She did want, at some time, to meet someone, fall in love, and begin a family of her own. Her greatest hope was that her life with her own family would be as full of happiness as her parents’ had been. When she met Daniel Maitland, she believed her prayers had been answered.
Daniel’s parents had been of loose morals--drinking, smoking, always groping each other like a couple of dogs in heat. He was determined when he was on his own, and had his own family, life would be very different. Prayer would be in their lives on a daily basis, and they would not be corrupted by the evils of the world. There would be no record players, or television, or magazines. The Bible. That was all they needed.
His parents, for all their flaws, had provided well for their son. When they died, the house was paid off, and there were no debts outstanding. There was also a generous annuity, which oddly enough, paid out in spite of the manner of their death.
Daniel was 18 when they committed suicide. He had been staying overnight at a youth retreat sponsored by the church, and a neighbor had heard the shots. No one ever really understood why they had shot each other. They were found close to each other in the sitting room, on the daybed. It appeared as though they were sitting and chatting. They were turned toward each other, leaning against the wall. Only the fact that their faces had been shattered by the gunshots, and the blood spray covering them, confirmed this as a double suicide.
Daniel remained calm when he was told. Everyone thought it was his deep faith that kept him strong during this tragic period. But Daniel was glad they were gone, as now he could begin to live life as it was meant to be lived. Discipline. Hard work. And prayer. When he and his family lived in this house, evil wouldn’t be permitted a place at their table. He would see to that.
Margaret’s parents didn’t care for Daniel Maitland. He was too severe a person. Margaret was accustomed to receiving affection and kindness. It appeared Daniel possessed neither of these qualities. But Margaret knew in her heart that he was just being respectful toward her. He wanted a decent, moral woman to manage his home and raise his children. How she wanted to be that woman. She knew he would loosen up after they were married and in their own home. She would have him laughing and smiling in no time at all.
Margaret’s parents had decided to relocate to Miami after the wedding, leery of leaving their daughter with that cold shell of a man. They had really enjoyed Lake Meade, but now that Margaret would be on her own, and since Daniel had made it abundantly clear that they were to be left to their own devices without interference, perhaps it was time to just enjoy each other. Besides, it was what Margaret wanted, and she had insisted they go, and begin their lives together. She, in turn, would begin hers.
Margaret had been right about one thing. After they were married, Daniel’s attitude toward her did change. He became even colder and more distant. He informed her that they would ‘couple’ only to conceive a child. Couple. When he talked that way, it made her feel as if she were some sort of animal being used to breed. Margaret never told her parents how bad things really got; she knew it would just break their hearts. They had both passed on before the birth of her second daughter anyway. God moves in mysterious ways, she thought at the time. Best they didn’t share the time that followed.
Penelope was a horrid child. Margaret felt guilty at first when she viewed her first born that way, but there was no other way to describe her. She was just horrid. Her appearance was acceptable, at best, but it was her attitude toward her mother, and people in general. The child treated Margaret as if she were in the way in her own home. Constantly following her father around, wanting to be alone with him. Margaret could almost tolerate that, except for the fact that Daniel went along with it. All that time alone with her in his corner room. God knows what was going on in there. In her heart, Margaret knew, but she never went in. Seeing would be too much.
Daniel never touched Margaret. Never put his arms around her. Never kissed her. Margaret prayed hard during their evening sessions. Not for the exorcising of evil that Daniel was ranting about, but for her husband to seduce her. Margaret could feel herself dying inside a little each day, and she wasn’t quite sure what she could do to stop it. She needed somebody to love her. Or at least go through the motions. She resisted temptation over and over again, but being a beautiful woman, young men coming through town would often approach her on her walks or while shopping. One Saturday, she decided to resist no longer.
Who he was didn’t seem important. He was young, good looking, and showered her with compliments. That most wonderful thing about him was the way he put his hands on her. Everywhere. Gentle and warm. He made her feel alive again. Their afternoon together only lasted a few hours, and then he was gone. That was alright with Margaret. She believed she could get by for quite some time on that memory alone. Then she realized she was pregnant. Penelope was ten, and they hadn’t discussed having any more children. But Margaret knew she had to convince Daniel it was time to ‘couple’ again because she wanted another child. Time was of the essence.
When Johanna Marie was born, or ‘Sissy’ as they later called her, Margaret couldn’t have been happier. The timing was a bit off, but she had managed to convince Daniel that Penelope needed a little sister or brother for company. Penelope didn’t want a little sister or brother for company, of course, but Margaret felt that perhaps once the little one came along, maybe she could make some sense out of their lives. Perhaps achieve some balance. Something.
Johanna Marie was a beautiful child. Happy and loving. Nothing like Penelope or her father. Margaret thought, this one is like her father, whatever his name was. It brought a smile to her lips when she remembered that afternoon. Things just might be alright after all, she thought, they just might be alright.
No one knew how Johanna Marie had hit her head so hard when she tumbled out of bed. She was a little past two, and sleeping in a bed by then. But it was low to the floor, and to have hit her head with that much force... The doctor said it was an accident. Things happen like that all the time, he said. Really a shame, though, such a pretty little girl. Probably won’t do much but remain in the home. She’ll have to be cared for and all, and get some sedatives regularly to stop the seizures. Probably live to a ripe old age, but won’t develop mentally or emotionally much. Real shame.
Penelope watched her mother crawl inside a deep, dark hole in her mind after Sissy’s accident. She never came out. Father found her one morning, dead in her bed of an overdose of Sissy’s sedatives. Since life had obviously become just too much for her, Penelope thought, she may as well just pack it in. That’s best.
Sissy wasn’t too much of a bother to care for later on. She didn’t wet the bed or anything, thank goodness. Penelope really didn’t think she could cope with that. Just keep her sedated and quiet in her room. Sometimes when Penelope would walk in, Sissy would just be sitting by the window just staring out. Who knew at what though, since there probably wasn’t much of a mind in there anymore. But she would come down for meals to the kitchen and be able to feed herself. Penelope couldn’t stand the thought of feeding her. It was bad enough cleaning her up now and then with a soapy washcloth. When Father was alive, he told Penelope he would take care of that, but Penelope wouldn’t have it. She just knew Sissy, probable footstool that she was, would try to get Father’s attention and convince him to train her too. Train her for what, mind you. No decent man would want such a thing as she had become. No. Penelope would care for her. She promised Father she would. Always.
When Father died, Penelope took it as a sign. He had taught her that after he was gone, she should seek a decent, moral man as her husband, but never to let him have his way with her. Father had tried for all those years to purify her and prepare her to be clean enough to take her husband, but it was to no avail. Father had told her that Mother had been unclean, and so it passed on to her. He knew when they married that she had been with others, and that if they had daughters, he would have to work very hard to try to erase all the evil that had been born in them. Sissy was a lost cause--the ultimate punishment for Mother’s sins. Penelope had come along quite nicely, but in spite of all of Father’s efforts, she would have to maintain a celibate, childless marriage. Do not pass the evil on, he had told her, keep it unto thyself, and let it die with you. She knew Father had been right--he always was.
Penelope was on her way home from the Pharmacy with more of Sissy’s medicine when she saw him. He stood at the end of the driveway to the house on the hill and waved to her. She nodded and continued on her way home. She had heard someone finally bought that house. It had been so long since anyone lived there, Penelope couldn’t remember the name of the former residents. No matter. Noisy and Godless, they were. Playing music into the night, laughing, children running around in the front yard at all hours. The house was just across the road and had a long driveway as did hers, but one could still hear all the commotion coming from that house. This man looked about 50-ish, and there wasn’t anyone outside with him. Maybe he lived alone. Penelope hoped so. She had gotten used to the peace and quiet, with that house and hers the only ones at the end of the cove.
She had put Sissy’s medicine in the kitchen cabinet and was going to start making lunch when there was a knock on the door. Penelope wondered who would bother them at lunchtime. Once in awhile a salesman would get lost and knock on the door to get directions to find his way back to town, but that was a rare occurrence. Penelope preferred her solitude and made it clear to anyone who showed any sort of interest in socializing, that the Maitlands did not. They kept to themselves, and believed others should do the same.
The town’s folk respected that, and didn’t come around, except to hand out invitations to that annoying Harvest Ball of theirs. Some ridiculous function held each year in early October at the town square. There were streamers, and lights, and music; as if Penelope would allow herself to attend such a blasphemous thing. The story was that new love was revealed on Harvest Ball night. Anyone recently becoming engaged, going steady, or keeping company, shared it with the rest of the town on that night. Everyone would applaud and drink a toast and congratulate them. New love was found there too, as couples danced the night away, romances were born. Penelope knew what went on there. She had heard their noisy ritual. Now it was coming up again next week. Well, she and Sissy would do what they always did on Harvest Ball night. Eat an early supper, pray, and go to bed. Perhaps she’d give Sissy an extra pill tonight so she could get some rest. Sissy was so annoying when she woke up in the middle of the night. Crying and whining. Penelope couldn’t do anything to settle her down. She certainly had no interest in holding her. Yes. Another pill tonight. She’d done it whenever she needed to rest and didn’t want to be awakened in the middle of the night. Surely it won’t do her any harm.
Penelope went to see who was at the door. She moved the curtain ever so slightly to see who was standing there. She would never just open the door. You just never knew these days who could be at your door. Penelope was startled to see the man from the end of the driveway. As soon as he saw her peeking through the curtain, he began to smile and wave again. Penelope opened the door a couple of inches.
“Yes?” she said quietly.
“Hello,” he said, his voice deep and calm. Like Father’s. “I’m your new neighbor, and I wanted to come over and introduce myself. My name’s Chester Wilming, and I’m new to the Lake Meade area. I’m originally from San Diego, but now that I’m retired, I decided to make a real change. Come and enjoy the beauty of the countryside. Goodness. Here I am just chattering away. I just wanted to introduce myself, Ms. Maitland. Not to be a bother to you or your sister. Just to say hello.”
Penelope opened the door wider, letting a cool rush of air into the stale kitchen. Strange feelings were coming over her, and she didn’t understand them. She felt embarrassed by them. But there was something about this man...something familiar...something warm...
“How do you know my name?” she asked. “And how do you know about my sister?”
Chester smiled and said, “Oh, I asked around, Ms. Maitland. I like to know who my neighbors are.”
He looked past Penelope and saw the place settings on the kitchen table.
“Oh, I’m intruding on your lunch. I’m terribly sorry. We can talk another time. Perhaps you and your sister would like to come by some evening to sit on the porch and have some nice, cold lemonade? I think it’s always good to get to know your neighbors. And, if I do say so myself, I make a mean glass of lemonade!” Penelope noticed his eyes sparkled when he smiled. Like Father’s.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly, “my sister doesn’t go out. She’s... well, she’s ill. She had an accident when she was a child, and she wouldn’t... I mean, she isn’t... She doesn’t go out. I don’t generally... perhaps I could if it was very early evening. Just for some lemonade and conversation, you understand. I don’t get involved with card playing or music or anything like that. Just for some lemonade and conversation. If it was very early.”
Chester thought to himself, what an incredibly sad lady. He had heard talk in town about the two of them, and the whispers about their parents. Still, it’s always good to get to know your neighbors. Since he was making a real change and starting over here, he wanted to start off right. Just lemonade and some conversation. He figured he could handle that.
“Well, well,” Chester smiled. “Is this the other Ms. Maitland? I’m happy to be able to meet you too.”
Penelope turned around and saw Sissy standing there in her gown and robe. Sissy. With that idiot grin on her face. Doing it again. Trying to interfere. Just like when she was little. With Father. Didn’t even bother to put some clothes on. Her gown and robe were flannel and floor-length, but she shouldn’t have come to the door in them. She should have put on some clothes before she came to the door. No. She shouldn’t have come to the door at all.
Penelope grabbed Sissy’s arm and pulled her away from the door.
“Thank you for stopping by, Mr. Wilming,” she began.
“Chester,” he said, “please.”
“Well, Chester, then,” she continued. “It’s time for Sissy to have her lunch and her medicine. Perhaps I will find time to stop by for some lemonade and conversation in a little while. Perhaps.”
“I’ll count on you then, Ms. Maitland,” Chester said. “Why don’t we plan for around seven? Supper is finished, and things settle down about that time. Is that alright with you?”
Penelope felt flushed. She prayed hard it didn’t show. Why was this happening to her? Now, after all these years. What kind of evil did she carry in her that she should get so flustered when a man knocks on her door. But, it wasn’t just any man knocking on her door. This one was different. There was so much of Father in him. She could see it. She could feel it. Perhaps he is the one. The one she will spend her life within celibate bliss as Father foretold. Perhaps. Sissy began squirming in her grasp.
“Yes, Chester,” Penelope said quickly. “Seven will be just fine. I’ll be there at seven. Just me. Thank you, and we really to have to get lunch now. Goodbye.”
Penelope quickly closed the door and latched it. She pushed Sissy against the counter, and slapped her face so hard it left the mark of her hand on her cheek.
“No!”, she snarled. “You will not get in the way this time. You had no business being with Father because he was mine. Mother tried to get in the way, but he didn’t want her. You tried to get in the way, and well, you know what happens when you interfere. Or maybe you don’t.”
Penelope grabbed Sissy by her shoulders until Sissy began to flinch.
“You were told you fell out of your bed. You were told you were a clumsy dunce, and you fell out of your bed on the hard floor. But that’s not the way it happened. I caught you watching Father and I through the keyhole in his corner room. That was our private time. I made up my mind you would pay for sticking your nose in where it didn’t belong. So, after you went to sleep, I came in your room and pulled you out of the bed and slammed your head on the floor. Hard. Harder than even I had realized. Guess I didn’t know my own strength. You didn’t know any better, you idiot. You were always stupid anyway. And after your ‘accident’, well, let’s just say we didn’t have to worry about you snooping anymore.
“Don’t even think about doing anything like that this time, little miss, if you can think. I won’t have it, do you understand? I think from now on it probably would be better if you had your meals in your room. I’ll bring your meals to you and your medication, and you just stay in there. You have your own bathroom so you won’t need to come out. When it’s time to wash you, I’ll come and take care of everything. We’ll just keep that door of yours locked so you can’t get out and hurt yourself on anything. We wouldn’t want that now, would we? Why, it would be just awful if you had another accident.”
Penelope dragged Sissy upstairs and pushed her on the bed.
“I’ll bring your lunch up in a little while with your pill. You just rest there for awhile.”
Penelope pulled the heavy door shut and turned the key until it clicked. There, she thought, that should keep you.
The lemonade and conversation on Chester’s porch was just as enjoyable as Penelope thought it would be. Chester was very respectful toward her, and behaved like a perfect gentleman. He is the one, she thought, he is. Father said I would know when the proper man crossed my path. She hadn’t been inside his house, nor he inside hers yet. That would never do. Alone with a man in any house wouldn’t do. Not until they were married anyway.
Chester had said that he had come to Lake Meade because he had heard about it from Sheriff Sydney Todd. Penelope wondered why, when Chester had said he was from San Diego, it triggered something in her memory. Sheriff Todd was from San Diego. Evidently, they had known each other there, and when Sheriff Todd decided to come back to his hometown to finish his career in law enforcement, he told Chester about Lake Meade and what a beautiful place it was. Chester had been some kind of engineer, and when he took early retirement, he packed everything up, came to Lake Meade, and bought the house on the hill.
Penelope wondered which house they would live in. She could use a change. Besides, his house seemed larger and a bit more cheerful. Perhaps they would live...
Sissy. My God, she thought. What to do about Sissy. Sure, he would take her in out of kindness, but what kind of a life would they have with her around all the time? ‘She’ll probably live to a ripe old age’, the doctor had said after her accident. What to do, Penelope thought, what to do about Sissy.
The sedatives, she thought. She had just refilled the prescription anyway, so there were plenty. They had worked with Mother years ago. Everyone had believed Mother had taken her own life; just too full of despair. Well, Sissy was capable of taking too many. Penelope only gave her one in the afternoon like she was supposed to. It wouldn’t be Penelope’s fault if Sissy got hold of them from the kitchen cabinet. People knew she wandered about the house--Chester had seen her.
Penelope came in from another pleasant evening on Chester’s porch. Sheriff Todd had been there as well. They were old friends, but Penelope was hoping they would be alone again. The more time they could spend together, the sooner he would see that she was the one to manage his home and share his life with. In prayer and discipline. In that big house. Just the two of them. When she opened the back door, she saw Sissy closing the refrigerator.
“What are you doing in here?” Penelope screamed and slapped Sissy so hard she fell on the floor. “How did you get out of your room? Well, I guess we’ll just have to take care of our little situation, then. Can’t have you wandering around and all, upset and depressed that you are. I told Chester all about it tonight. How worried I was and how I needed to leave early to go check on you.”
Penelope reached down to grab Sissy’s arm and felt the pain go through her arm like it had been set on fire. Sissy had plunged the carving knife in Penelope’s forearm almost all the way through. Penelope grabbed the handle and pulled the knife out, feeling her legs start to give out from under her.
“You bitch!” she screamed. “What is this? A temper? Getting even maybe? I should have finished you off when you were two. Well, now’s as good a time as any!”
Penelope sat at the kitchen table shaking. She had wrapped her arm and the bleeding had stopped. This was going to be hard to explain to a doctor. Maybe she would go to the city to one of those minor emergency places and make up a story. Yes. That would work. And Sissy? She would dispose of her tomorrow. She would clean everything up and just tell people Sissy wandered off. They would search and search, but she would not be found. Perhaps someone picked her up in a car, Penelope would suggest. You just never know what kind of people are out there these days, do you?
She poured another glass of her ‘medicine’. Father would have understood. All the stress and everything. She kept the gin in the refrigerator because it was easier to drink all cold like that. It did have a funny aftertaste tonight though. Oh, well. No matter. She felt warm and relaxed and believed she’d sleep well tonight in spite of all the commotion. After she emptied this pitcher, she would rinse it out good and get rid of whatever that funny taste was.
Her vision started to blur, and as she looked at the pitcher, she saw some white powder that had settled to the bottom. Now, what could that be, she thought. She picked up the pitcher and decided to pour the rest out and rinse it. She almost fell walking to the sink. What’s going on, she thought, I only had a couple of glasses. She started to giggle, until she noticed the cabinet next to the sink was open. The only thing in that cabinet was Sissy’s medicine bottle. The one she had just refilled the other day. But the top was off and the bottle was empty. Empty!
That bitch, Penelope thought as she struggled to stay on her feet. That’s what she was doing in the refrigerator. She put her pills in my medicine. And just to distract me, she cut me with the carving knife. That bitch. Well, I fixed her... I did. I...
Sheriff Todd forced the back door open. Chester hadn’t seen either of the Maitland sisters for several days, and they didn’t answer the door, so he called his friend to make sure nothing had happened to them. Nothing could have prepared them for what they found. Penelope Maitland was on the kitchen floor, a glass in her hand that had contained gin and triple the lethal dose of sedatives, they would later learn. And Ms. Sissy Maitland was upstairs on her bed with a carving knife in her throat. Judging by the cut on Ms. Penelope’s arm, it appears they had fought, Ms. Penelope had murdered her sister is a fit of rage, then taken her own life with the overdose.
Sheriff Todd wondered if they would ever find out what Ms. Penelope had done with her sister’s eyes. Perhaps some things are best left a mystery, though.
Sydney Todd put the flower in his lapel. He was really ready for Harvest Ball tonight. What a sad week this had been, with the Maitland deaths and all. Such pitiful ladies they were, he thought, and so alone. They really should have attended the Harvest Balls. He had gone to every one since he came back to Lake Meade. Of course, it was only to share the happiness of others until he could share his. But tonight, he would announce his love and share his happiness. He and Chester Wilming had found each other in San Diego. Now, Chester was here, and they would proclaim their love at the Harvest Ball. The people in Lake Meade were an understanding sort. Some people already knew Sydney preferred the company of other gentlemen, but they treated him just like everyone else. Sometimes the high school boys would say rude things when he drove by the school, but they didn’t mean anything by it. It was just to show off or something to each other. They would outgrow that.
He was so happy tonight. Chester was here to stay, and they would be together, and everything would be out in the open. He still felt bad, though, for those Maitland sisters. If only they had come to the Harvest Ball once in awhile. Perhaps they could have met someone. But, if they especially could have come tonight, when Sydney and Chester announced their love to the town. Then, those poor, sad ladies would have seen just what a beautiful thing love can be.
BIO: J. F. Juzwik has had a crime fiction novel, a horror short, and several crime shorts published. Her thriller will soon be appearing in an anthology. She is a member of several writers' networks and maintains a blog for both writers and readers at J F Juzwik's Blog. Information on all her projects can be found on her website at J. F. Juzwik - Author - Published Novels.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
11 hours ago