[Issue #6, Fall 2001]
The Girl Who Washed Her Hands
I suppose everyone has a double. Jack Lehrer was not mine. But we had been
in many of the same classes in college and because my name came right before
his when role was called, I was aware of him, as he was of me. Then last
year I took a job with a software company and the first week I was sent
to a trade show in Houston with their other salesperson.
Surprise, it was Jack Lehrer.
After we set up the booth, we headed out for dinner. He filled me in on
the company from his perspective and we traded memories from our university
days. We had had a few drinks while waiting for a table in a fancy steak
joint, so after the meal it was nice to settle back in our chairs and sip
a little coffee. In passing Jack had alluded to his divorce a few years
earlier. Since my married life was not going well at the time, I was curious
what it was like for someone my age to be single again.
I inquired whether there was a woman in his life. He thought about this
for a minute but didn't answer. I thought, perhaps he hadn't heard my question
so I said, "Have you been seeing other women since your divorce?"
Jack was a big guy, balding but with a slow, winning smile. He said, "I'll
tell you, just this year I've had several, well, very unusual encounters
"Come on," I said. "We've got a whole night to kill. Let's
hear some details -- if you want to talk about it, that is."
"Let me tell you about one of them," he said. "In fact maybe
it's a good idea to talk about this with someone."
He began, "Let me see, it was a few years after college. I went on
to get a teaching certificate and found myself with a position as an English
teacher in a very poor high school in Michigan. Most of the kids had no
interest in classes, but I did have one student who was not only cute but
very bright. My ex-wife and I even got to know her parents. They were old-fashioned
radicals from the forties -- I should mention that this was a very conservative,
fundamentalist area. Mary also had an older sister, Jeannie. She was smart
too, but emotionally troubled even at that young age."
Jack paused. He didn't want to get lost in too much detail but needed to
tell me enough to appreciate his story.
"One day," he continued, "the mother stopped at the school
late in the afternoon. She was a small woman with very short, cropped hair
and a face like a coconut. Anyway, she asked to come into my classroom and
she shut the door behind her. I pulled a couple of student desks around
so they faced each other and motioned for her to sit down. Without any further
introduction, she said, 'I have a terrible, family secret to tell you.'"
"What was it, the secret?" I found myself blurting out while he
took another drink of coffee. Then I became embarrassed. Here I was asking
him to reveal some personal part of this woman's life just because I had
a passing curiosity.
But he was even more embarrassed by the question than I.
"I don't know," he said.
"What?" I replied.
"You see, she bent forward in the desk toward me, but spoke in such
hushed tones, I couldn't understand what she was saying. Later, I thought,
perhaps, she had said she was suicidal or that she had been molested by
her father. At the time my first thought was that this didn't have anything
to do with the girls. My next one was, Why is this woman telling this to
Jack settled back in his chair. The restaurant was clearing out. He continued.
"I just wanted this strange woman out of my classroom so I could go
home and get on with my life. Of course, I acted concerned and was consoling.
But whether it was some kind of mental block or I honestly didn't hear the
words she spoke, I had no idea what her problem was."
Jack thought for a moment, then began again. He was now thinking of the
"Jeannie had a weird boyfriend but she received good grades and graduated
to go on to college. Mary blossomed too. She was a straight `A' student,
a top vocalist, had poems published in literary magazines -- and remember
she was only a high school student -- starred in school plays, was an active
environmental organizer, etc., etc. But no boyfriends! Even though she had
naturally blonde hair and a wonderfully seductive smile. Actually, guys
were intimidated by her because she was so far beyond anyone else her age
in accomplishments. I'll admit, to me she was more like an interesting peer
than a student.
"Senior year, she suddenly gave up everything for religion. Some kind
of charismatic Christianity. She was living like a children's bible-story
virgin who had delivered herself over entirely to God. She got a full scholarship
to the University of Chicago to study theology and that was the last I saw
of her until this year. She was eighteen when I was her teacher and now
many years later, she was thirty-six. Of course I was old enough to be her
father, but when she telephoned I was still trying to come to terms with
my divorce, and to hear this warm, enthusiastic voice, well, I was very
Jack remembered something and interjected, "I forgot to say that I
did hear she had a nervous breakdown that first year at the University.
A student who was a photographer for the yearbook -- I was the advisor --
had a brother who worked in a mental institution. She was taken there after
the breakdown. The brother said she couldn't stop washing her hands. Two
hundred, three hundred times a day she would wash her hands. The other thing
I learned, and I don't remember how, was that Frank, her father, was not
really her father. He had married the mother when she already had had the
I said, "Are you saying that the girls could have been parented by
the mother's father?"
Jack looked at me and replied, "John, have you ever thought about the
past? Not so much the events that happened in the past, but how we relive
them through the present?"
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Well, I guess that depends. Can we re-create ourselves like all those
motivational sales books and tapes lead us to believe? Or is it fate? Are
we fated to always replicate the past in some superficially different form?"
I thought about that for a moment, about my marriage that had once seemed
happy enough, but now didn't. Was I looking for something new or trying
to find something that I'd had in the past and wanted to re-live again?
I thought about my daughter, now an adult. To me she was both a woman and
the child she had always been.
Jack continued, "Whether the past is a treasure worth reclaiming or
something that turns what we do each day into penance, one thing is for
sure: it's always there, and sometimes it surfaces as unexpectedly as a
phone call in the middle of the night."
"Mary?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. She called out of nowhere late one night. She
had found my name through an Internet search. I didn't even have time to
turn on the lights and there, over the receiver, was her voice, in the dark,
coming out of the past.
"We talked for an hour and a half. Her parents, Elsie and Frank, had
died five years earlier within months of each other. Her sister, Jeannie,
had not married her boyfriend but a rather conservative businessman. She
had been on medication for depression, but last summer decided not to take
it anymore and one night walked out into Duck Lake until she drowned. Now
Mary Briggs -- 'Briggs' was her married name -- was alone except for her
husband of a year who had left her and then come back, she said, providing
she agree to `certain conditions.'
"Anyway, she wanted to see me, had to see me in fact, and wondered
if that were possible. As it turned out, I needed to make a business trip
to Chicago within the next two weeks. I told her I would call the next day
after I had pinned down the date.
"But something was strange right from the start," Jack said. By
now, we were the only ones in the restaurant and the staff was starting
to do its clean up tasks.
"What?" I asked.
"Well," he replied, "when I called her the next night, she
said, 'Hello.' I gave my name, but when I started to talk about what day
I would be in Chicago, without saying a further word, she suddenly hung
"Yes, I called again thinking that maybe I had dialed the wrong number,
but the same thing happened."
"That was strange," I said.
"Yes, but you haven't heard anything yet," he replied.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, she called the next morning and with absolutely no explanation
for what had happened the night before, she again repeated that she'd be
overjoyed to meet with me. We set up a time and place. But when I hung up
the phone, I had this eerie, unsettled feeling."
Back at the hotel, Jack offered to elaborate. We sat in a corner of the
two-story, Hilton lobby. There was a small bar and we each ordered a brandy.
There was a gas fire in the fireplace. Though we were many miles away from
home in a strange place, we huddled together around that fire in front of
logs that never burned. I decided that I enjoyed Jack. He was proving to
be a more interesting and sensitive guy than I had thought, and though his
experiences were different than mine, they were somewhat parallel. It was
almost as if we were each playing chess with some unseen opponent, except
he was a couple moves ahead of me in his game and I was anxious to see if
what happened to him could apply to me.
"I got to the Old Town section of Chicago where we were to meet about
an hour early," Jack said. "I thought I would have trouble finding
parking, but as it turned out there was a spot just behind the restaurant.
It was a warm late afternoon in June and I sat at a table outside.
"I have to admit," he said, "I did have a few beers while
I waited. But listen, you've got to believe me, I'll try to be as exact
as I can. I was looking down the street when I heard a voice -- coming from
the sidewalk behind my back. It said, 'Jack Lehrer!'
"I turned slowly, not knowing what to expect. It had been many years
since I last saw Mary but I still half thought that she would look the same.
She stood right in front of the setting sun and I was blinded by it. I could
make out the shape of her body and her golden hair. The blonde around her
face was glowing like a rim of sun around the moon in a total eclipse."
Jack stopped to catch his breath. I could tell his heart was beating quickly.
"In less than a minute," he said, "I got up from that table,
mumbling some lame excuse and left."
"Without looking back, I walked almost at a run, through the restaurant,
past the kitchen and out the door to my car in back. I was driving for almost
an hour before I realized that I didn't know where I was."
"What do you mean?" I asked, trying to make sense of what he was
saying. "What had happened?"
"When she came forward," Jack whispered, "as her face bent
down toward me out of that halo of sun, I saw that it was not her face at
all, but the shriveled coconut face of -- I swear to you -- her mother.
And from those tight, unmoving lips I heard a voice as distant as from a
grave. It said, `I want my secret back.'"
As I looked at Jack, I could feel the board tilting and imaginary chess
pieces sliding toward the floor.
[This is the first part of a three-part story called Eerie
Tales of Women.]
John Lehman is a frequent contributor to Cambridge Book Review.
In addition to founding and publishing Rosebud
literary magazine, John is also poetry editor for the Wisconsin
Academy Review. His collection of poetry, Shrine of the Tooth
Fairy, was published by CBR Press in 1998.
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