Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #6, Fall 2001]


The Girl Who Washed Her Hands

John Lehman


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 with women."

"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 me?"

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 two girls.

"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 pleased."

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 two girls."

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 up."

"Hung up?"

"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."

"Why?"

"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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