Authors: Lori Reisenbichler
’m putting the nozzle into my gas tank at the Mini-Mart when I see Wendy. I haven’t been back to our playgroup since that embarrassing encounter in the grocery-store juice bar, and I haven’t seen Wendy since the night we sat on the curb waiting for the fire truck. I wave and she walks over from her gas pump to mine.
“I was just talking about you!” She gives me a quick hug and tells me about her friend who owns a coffee shop downtown. Trying to build business, her friend added a hypnotherapist who does sessions on weekends. “You should go see her. My friend says she specializes in getting rid of soul hitchhikers.”
“People who die suddenly and don’t know they’re dead. They latch on to other souls, and the only way to get rid of them is to go see her. Isn’t that brilliant? I thought of Toby immediately and told her all about him.”
“You told her about Toby?”
“Think about it! It fits the profile. She says she’d have to see him to know for sure, but maybe he picked up a hitchhiker. See? That could be what his imaginary friend is—a soul hitchhiker. It’s like a cross between a ghost and a reincarnation! It explains everything!”
“Well, that’s a new one.” I manage a teeth-only smile. My gas pump cuts off with a loud clunk. “Excuse me,” I say, as I reach for the handle.
“Here—let me get you her card!” She runs back to her car, fishes through her purse, and comes back with a thick mocha-toned business card with a stenciled logo. It’s clearly a labor of love. I hate to drop something that well crafted into the trash at the Mini-Mart, but I hear the crazy in Wendy’s voice. I wonder if I used to sound like that. I’m pretty sure I did.
That’s what Carla told me, when we finally got a chance to have one of those late-night marathon calls and I told her the Branson story. What a contrast to the painful confessions I had to make to Eric. When I told her what I did, she could not stop laughing.
“You did what?” she hooted, after I described each of my flagrant errors in judgment. It’s not that she missed how serious it was or how desperate I’d been; this was her gift to me. She helped me separate from it just enough to look at it from the outside in, like I was a lunatic in a slapstick comedy trying to solve a mystery that existed only between my ears. It’s a relief not to constantly look for hidden interpretations.
Like when Toby talks about John Robberson now. He doesn’t play the game every day anymore, but he did try to wink at me this morning. I just winked back.
The entire conversation strengthens my resolve to write Kay a letter. I don’t have to overinterpret anything; I just need to finish my business with her so I can move on.
“I don’t think I’ll be needing this,” I say out loud inside my car as I slip the hand-crafted card into the no-man’s-land side pocket of my driver door. I wave goodbye to Wendy, hoping she didn’t see me talking to myself.
QUIT WITH THAT
ear Mrs. Robberson,
Hello. I’m Shelly Buckner. Maybe you’ve forgotten my name, but I’m sure you remember meeting me over the Fourth of July weekend. I know I promised you wouldn’t hear from me again. I have to trust in the decency you showed me when I was at my worst, even as I ask you to indulge me once again.
I returned to my home in Arizona, deeply ashamed of my behavior toward you. I won’t drag you through the convoluted thinking that led me to your doorstep, but let me assure you, I understand now that I was very confused at that time. I won’t bog you down with all the possible explanations, because none of them can justify my actions.
I need for you to know I’ve come to my senses. I’d like to express my regret at dragging you into the drama I concocted. I’m so sorry to speak such nonsense about John. It was ridiculous to conclude there was any connection between my son’s imaginary friend and your deceased husband. I can only imagine how hurtful it must have been, how insulting to John’s memory, for me to say the crazy things I said. It was presumptuous of me to speak with any authority about something I couldn’t possibly know.
In short, I know how inappropriate it was for me to even approach you, much less the way I did it. You were right to order me off your property, and I am deeply ashamed that even then, I couldn’t stop myself from continuing to harass you.
I’m ashamed my son saw me in such a state, and I’m sorry to have created a threat. Of course, you felt the need to defend yourself. As you probably suspect, guns frighten me. I overreacted (to say the least!), and I understand I made the situation even more dangerous. I am absolutely mortified that I attacked you. It was a fear reaction on my part, but I know that doesn’t excuse it. I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ll never forgive myself if you’re experiencing any continued symptoms as a result of my impulsive behavior.
I would like to offer to pay for any damages I caused on your property or for any injury I caused. Please send me any medical bills or receipts and I will take care of them right away.
I am so deeply sorry. You showed your true character by coming to the police station. I couldn’t appreciate it then, but now I see the wisdom in your actions. You showed great kindness to me—and to my son. Thank you for providing a wonderful example of compassion and old-fashioned decency. You gave me a good lesson in mothering that day.
I lost my own mother before Toby was born, so I always search for wise women to inspire and instruct me as I try to find my way. You’ve been one of those for me. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me. I take full responsibility for my behavior.
I needed to write it. I picked at it and pulled it apart about fifty times, sleeping on that version twice before I could mail it, trying to demonstrate both humility and some level of mental clarity.
I chat up my mailman, mentally flowcharting his explanation of the stops my letter will make between Oasis Verde and a black mailbox on the side of a rural highway in Branson. For three days, my conscience crosses its fingers that the letter will go undetected and make it up the long driveway, all the way to Kay’s kitchen table, before she notices my return address. I’m hoping she won’t tear it up or mark it “return to sender” without opening the envelope. She doesn’t have to answer, but it will eat at me if I think she hasn’t even read it.
Almost two weeks later, I’m still chatting up the mailman, still pretending I’m not flipping past the dry cleaning coupons and bills with a hidden purpose. I find a greeting-card-sized envelope with cutesy puppies printed on the back lapel. I flip it over, read the return address, and let out a squeal right there on the sidewalk. I jump up and down, wagging the letter in the air like it’s a winning lotto ticket. Inside: a single sheet from an old-school steno pad, the kind that has the spiral at the top. Kay’s handwriting looks like she’s in junior high, with lots of loops and kind of a backward slant.
I can’t stop smiling as I begin to read.
You don’t have to worry about me. Don’t be so hard on yourself. And I don’t need your money. I got a pension. It’s clean between us now, so quit with that.
All right then.
PS: Your boy was real sweet and I liked meeting him. Ask him what kind of dog.
I stop smiling.
hould I be worried?”
Eric shakes his head, but I can’t tell if it means “No, don’t be worried,” or “Holy shit, this is weird and totally inappropriate and why the hell is she asking Toby anything if she thinks it’s all a big game and we just need to play along?”
“Do you think this is just her way to play along?”
“Yeah,” he says, “I bet that’s it. Maybe she’s just showing you that she’s still playing along.”
“Should I answer it?”
Opinion is divided on that question. Pa has been out of the loop on many of the details of the Branson trip, so he was surprised to hear that Kay even existed. He didn’t see what all the fuss was about.
“She’s an old lady. When you get old, you don’t get to see many little kids. You look at them and it makes you remember when your kids were that little and it makes you happy. That’s all. I bet she doesn’t have any other little kids to dote on, so she’s borrowing yours. Will it kill you to throw her a bone? Send her a picture of Toby and ole Thud; she’ll get a kick outta that.”
I catch Carla on the phone, between airports, to get her perspective on it. She gives me the down and dirty. “Let’s break it down. Two choices. You’re either going to answer her letter or you’re not. If you don’t, what happens?”
“She either stops writing or she keeps trying to contact me.”
“If you do answer it, what happens?”
I hesitate. “Same. She either stops writing or she keeps trying.”
“So it doesn’t matter what you do, does it? She’s throwing it out to see if you take the bait. If you don’t, see what happens. She may go away on her own.”
“What if she doesn’t go away?”
“Then you have to decide whether or not you want to hear what she has to say.” Carla laughs. “And whether you can keep from going postal on her. She’s like your mental-health litmus test. If you can be around her and not freak out, then you know you’re over it.”
Lakshmi wants me to respond, out of sheer curiosity. She thinks Pa’s idea about sending a picture of Toby and Thud is a great compromise.
I don’t trust my gut reaction anymore, so I keep weighing the pros and cons. To clear my mind, Eric and I take Toby on a walk around the neighborhood after dinner. As we pass Mrs. Gilliam’s house, Toby stops to call her cat, Pickles. He raises his voice to exaggerate the emphasis on the second syllable. Mrs. Gilliam hears Toby’s signature call and opens her screen door. Eric and I wave from the sidewalk and let her have her time with Toby, both of them giggling as he strokes Pickles right under the chin, like she taught him.
“Old people love Toby, don’t they?”
Eric looks at me. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“It feels mean not to answer at all. After all I put her through, if I can do something small like send a picture, maybe it will make her happy, and we can end it on a positive note.”
Eric sighs. “Is there any logical reason to tell this woman what kind of dog was in Toby’s imagination?”
“You’re right, there’s no logical reason. It’s an emotional reason. I will feel better if I can do something for her, even if it’s just a picture. I feel I owe her that much.”
“Okay. Fair enough. Next question: Is there any actual risk?” He answers his own question. “No, unless it acts as a trigger for you.”
“I can’t think of anything she could do or say that would trigger any further action on my part.”
I’m glad to hear you’re doing well. I asked Toby what kind of dog, and he told me the same kind as our dog Thud, a Dalmatian. I’m sending a picture of Toby and Thud from last year. Unfortunately, I don’t have a current picture because poor Thud died a few months ago, quite unexpectedly. My husband Eric used to run with him every morning. When they stopped for water, Thud swallowed a bee, which caused his throat to close up. It broke our hearts to lose him like that. I think Eric misses him the most.
Thanks again for responding.
By the end of the week, I get this letter—same loopy handwriting, same cutesy stationery, but a completely different tone:
I knew it was a Dalmatian! See, John had a thing for Dalmatians. He was a fire chief (did you know that?) and he got it in his head that every fireman needed a Dalmatian. Well, he got Duke first, but it didn’t take long for him to get sick of the dog going to town on his leg, if you know what I mean, so we got Daisy. Next thing I know, we got puppies all over the place. I threw a fit and he talked his fireman buddies into taking a few. They paid good money for ’em, too. So now John’s got it in his head we’re gonna get rich on this, and he goes out and buys himself another female and next thing I know, we’re breeding them at home. Duke was always his favorite, though. Went to work with him every day. The kids in town looked for him, riding up front, even with the sirens blaring, on the way to a fire.
We had a boy, too, and he loved them dogs. If the puppies wanted to come in the middle of the night, I’d let him stay up and wait. He was sweet about it, always wanting to pet Daisy or Delta—that was the mommas’ names. He learned though—you let ’em alone and let God get the job done. If there was a runt in the litter, he’d love on that one more than any of the rest.
Not John. He didn’t love them puppies. He loved old Duke. So when it was time to sell the puppies, we’d let John take them to town. We’d stay back and give Daisy and Delta some extra TLC on those days.
Now with John and Duke both gone, I know what it is to miss your dog, and I wanted to tell you, I’m friends with Duke’s breeder and he’s got a boy puppy ready to wean, so I went ahead and put down a deposit on him for you. Don’t fuss about it—just let an old woman do some good in the world, all right?
There’s a little hitch, but I got it all worked out. I was gonna just see if I could put the little pup on the airplane, but my breeder buddy says no way, no how. Says there’s a kennel virus they get on planes and it kills puppies all the time. Says the only way to get this puppy from me to you is for me to take it to you. So that’s what I’m gonna do.
I don’t want to put you out or anything. You don’t have to do anything, just don’t be a pill and ruin my fun. It’ll do my heart good to see that little squirt meet his new puppy for the first time. I’m leaving today and I expect I’ll be at your house sometime Tuesday afternoon. I take a lot of stops when I drive, so don’t worry about me.
I ain’t asking. I’m just telling you I’m coming. It’d be real good if you were home to meet the puppy so I can be sure he’s all set.
All righty then.