Authors: Katherine Holubitsky
Still, I had been dumped after one date. I felt ugly and rejected, although Donny continued to smile and wave at me at school. For many days following the end of our relationship I clung tightly to self-pity. I felt justified in calling it a relationship considering it ended with what could well have become a very passionate kiss.
“Maybe you should write a song about it” was Megan's advice.
This only prompted me to slump further into the stack of pillows on my bed. Megan sat in my sewing chair, filing her nails. It suddenly struck me as a ridiculous thing to be doing. Frivolous. Something you would only do if you had no other cares in the world. I knew I certainly would never have time to be fussing over my nails again. I could only foresee chopping them off out of necessity. I now had far greater worries requiring my time. “Why would I do that? I can't sing.”
“You don't have to be able to sing. It would just be therapeutic. Write it as a poem then. Or, I know, a quilt. Sew a quilt in honor of your lost love.”
“That's a stupid idea.”
Megan stopped filing. Instead, she used the nail file to punctuate her next words. “No, it's not a stupid idea. The idea is to channel your negative energy. You'd be channeling it into creating
something rather than letting it just sit there, eating away at you and making you miserable.”
“You'd be miserable too if you'd been through what I've been through. If you'd been told you're the ugliest person in the world.”
“He never said anything like that.”
“He didn't have to. But it's pretty obvious that's really why he dumped me.”
“Emma, he didn't dump you. You can't get dumped if you've only gone out once. And besides, he told you the reason. I think it's legitimate. You know, if you keep this up you're going to end up exactly like Mr. Gillespie.”
This comparison made me sit up fast because I'd seen Mr. Gillespie and I knew exactly what Megan was talking about. We'd passed him in Pike Creek when we'd been shopping with Aunt Alice a few days earlier. And what Megan saidâto end up like Mr. Gillespieâwas truly a frightening thought.
It had been difficult to believe that the crumpled, unshaven shadow of a man stumbling down the sidewalk had been one of Pike Creek's upstanding businessmen only months before. Despite Aunt Alice urging us on, Megan and I had stopped and stared after him, because, except for the odd glimpse of his sullen, moon face behind the lace curtain above the Dairy Bar, we had not seen him in a month. The transformation was incredible.
He had aged fifteen years in that month. His clothes were tired and stained, and even his scruffy beard could not cover the rosy blotches on his face. The man who had sat at meetings with our fathers, presiding over the administration of Pike Creek, emerged from the liquor store and, without any sign of recognition, passed my aunt on the street. We watched as he progressed down the sidewalk, slowly and unsteadily, with great concentration on each step.
“He's not a well man” was Aunt Alice's understated comment as she touched our shoulders to turn us around.
“No kidding,” Megan said. “He looks like hell.”
My aunt frowned but she did not chastise Megan for her language. Probably because she could not have summed up his appearance more accurately herself.
“Can't somebody do something to help him?”
“There are people looking in on him now and again. He'll get better. When this is all over. Right now he's carrying a huge burden around.”
Aunt Alice could not have known the size of the burden Mr. Gillespie was carrying at the time. Nobody did until a week later, when I had almost fully recovered from being jilted by Donny, but Mr. Gillespie had sunk even deeper into despair.
We heard the story from my aunt, who heard it from Mr. Dikkers himself when she picked Carl up from the arena a few days after Mr. Gillespie was hospitalized.
Late on a Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Dikkers, who was one of the people looking in on Mr. Gillespie, arrived at the Dairy Bar with a bag of groceries in one arm. He started to climb the wooden staircase, an old fire exit that led directly from the ground to the apartment above the restaurant. A wonderful fragrance in the air made him stop partway up. It was the delicate scent of lilacs wafting from the bushes at the side of the building. He turned his nose toward the bushes, pulled in a deep breath and continued up the stairs.
Once he had reached the rickety landing, he stopped and studied the door. He wasn't sure where to knock. The door was splattered with broken eggs that had dripped down the wood forming gummy rivulets. One chunk of rubbery yolk still had a piece of the shell attached.
Mr. Dikkers found a clean spot, rapped twice and waited for Mr. Gillespie to answer. The scent of lilacs, he realized, was now
smothered by an overpowering smell of gas. This caused him some alarm. Setting the groceries on the step, he opened the unlocked door. The dark, airless apartment belched fumes in his face and he immediately began to splutter and choke. Covering his mouth and nose with a handkerchief, he raced into the kitchen, shut off the stove and closed the oven door.
Mr. Gillespie lay semi-conscious on the sagging chesterfield. Mr. Dikkers was able to haul him off and drag him outside onto the landing at the top of the stairs. He called his name loudly while smacking his blotchy cheeks. He had him breathe deeply until he was able to sit up. When Mr. Dikkers was certain that Mr. Gillespie was conscious enough that he wouldn't tumble down the stairs, he returned to the apartment where he flung open all the windows and propped open the door.
“Was it an accident?” Megan interrupted Aunt Alice after she had told us this much of the story.
Aunt Alice stared into the bowl of cookie batter she was stirring. I knew my aunt to be an empathetic sort of person, but there was no characteristic she admired more than truthfulness. As she was about to tell us, Mr. Gillespie had not been truthful in the details of his relationship with Katie. This trapped my aunt somewhere between sympathy for what had happened to Mr. Gillespie and wanting to wring his storytelling neck. But despite Aunt Alice's own misgivings, she would want us to remain respectful of adults. It was a tenuous set of circumstances for her to juggle, and her explanation would require a delicate approach.
In answer to Megan's question, she shook her head. “No, it wasn't an accident.”
“I didn't think so,” Megan sniffed.
Aunt Alice then went on to tell us that following the near-fatal incident, Mr. Gillespie had been hospitalized for several days. In the hospital he was visited by both doctors and the police. It
was during this time that he finally confessed to what had really happened between him and Katie. He could not sink any lower. Whatever he said could make no difference anymore, and it was time the truth was known.
“At least he claims he's telling the real story this time,” my aunt muttered, unable to restrain herself. She was now glaring into the bowl with what I knew to be her “what's the matter with some people?” frown. She vigorously beat another cup of flour into the batter. “Anyway, I suppose it might be true that he was in love with Katie.”
Megan and I looked at each other. Megan scrunched up her nose. It was again the whole idea of love and an intimate relationship between Mr. Gillespie and Katie that grossed us out.
Aunt Alice pretended not to notice.
“He wasn't sure when he fell in love with her,” she continued, “but he'd always enjoyed her company in the restaurant because she was such a friendly girl. One evening, just before closing, he sat down next to her and told her what he was feeling. She was flattered, she told him, and although she also enjoyed his company, he was married, and in a year she would be leaving to go to school. A relationship between them would be totally impractical.”
Megan grimaced. “Did she mention the fact that he was bald, old enough to be her father and his gold tooth was a major turn-off? Man, how could she be so polite? If it was me, I would have plowed him.”
“Yes, well, that was a difference between you and Katie. Anyway,” my aunt went on, doing her best to ignore Megan, “obviously Mr. Gillespie would have been very disappointed by her answer if he'd expected that she felt the same way about him. He was still hopeful though, and so last summer he began to write the letters Mrs. Russell found. Katie hid the letters in a book without showing anyone. Mr. Gillespie didn't want her to
stop coming into the Dairy Bar altogether, so he continued to pretend the letters didn't exist. But he secretly wished that they would win her over. The night she was murdered she had asked him to stop writing the letters. She told him that if he was going to continue to write them, she would no longer be able to go into the restaurant.”
“Ah-hah!” Megan cried. “Now this is making way more sense. I never did get how she could go for Gillespie.”
Aunt Alice set the bowl on the table, placed her hands on her hips and frowned. “Megan, if you keep interrupting me I'm not going to get through Mr. Dikkers' story.”
“But he had a motive. It's so obvious. It was a reverse blackmail kind of thing.”
“No, it's not obvious. Nothing's obvious. I know it's hard for you to understand, but he really thought he was in love with Katie. He couldn't imagine not being able to see her anymore. It wasn't a motive. All that happened was he became frightened that he had scared her away.”
“Come on, Mom. Why do you keep making excuses for the guy? Admit it. You think he was just a lecherous old man too.”
Aunt Alice and I gaped at her. I was very impressed. Lecherous. It was an incredibly cool word to just be able to throw out there like that. It was a small matter that I could only guess at its meaning. But I knew I must have been close by my aunt's reaction.
“Megan! Wherever did you learn a word like that?” Aunt Alice suddenly removed her apron announcing that she had other things to do.
I was forced to appeal to Eric, who had heard the story from Maury, who had heard it from Constable Wagner. He filled us in on the rest.
Mr. Gillespie had closed the Dairy Bar ten minutes early the evening Katie had asked him to stop writing the letters. At ten
minutes to ten to be exact. Katie was off work at ten o'clock. He walked briskly down the sidewalk the two blocks to the nursing home. It was unseasonably cold and threatening to snow, so he wore the hood of his duffle coat up to protect his ears. He'd had frostbite once when he was a child, and they were still particularly sensitive to the cold. Standing out of the glare of the streetlight, he waited outside the nursing home for Katie to come out. When she appeared, he let her walk half a block before catching up. She wore earmuffs and didn't hear him approach until he was almost by her side. This was approximately a block before the arena.
Katie was surprised to see him. She wished he hadn't come. She thought she had made it clear that there could be nothing between them. She was sorry to have to tell him straight out, but he was forcing her; he was far too old for her, and even if she had time for a relationship, she would want it with someone more her age. Did he understand this?
Yes, he did. But why? What difference did age make when he cared for her and could offer her as much affection as any young man?
Katie burst into tears at that point. She turned and started to walk quickly ahead of him. Mr. Gillespie followed, attempting to comfort her as he tried to fall in step. She broke into a run. He again tried to keep pace with her. He followed her for several more feet before giving up. He must have been somewhere in front of the arena, he couldn't remember the exact spot. But he stood watching Katie as she hurried forward for another block. She turned once. She stopped running when she realized he no longer followed her. A vanâthe van he had already described to police passed him. It pulled to the side of the road. Katie glanced back at Mr. Gillespie, still standing by the arena, stepped from the curb and opened the passenger door. She climbed into the van and it drove away.
He had no recollection of who the driver was or even what he looked like to be honest. He was focused only on Katie. He also did not recall seeing the Fritz boy that night. He must have been walking down an intersecting street as the police had already suggested. Mr. Gillespie had then walked home. His wife had previously confirmed that he arrived at the house just after ten thirty.
That was what had happened and he now had nothing left to tell. If he hadn't followed her, if he had not pushed her to the point where she felt she had to escape from him, she would no doubt be alive today. Mr. Gillespie believed that he was as responsible for Katie's death as the killer himself.
After hearing the story, people were split between agreeing that Mr. Gillespie was responsible and the belief that he was a brave and a tormented man. My mother was somewhere in the middle.
“Yes, he was wrong in the way he handled himself,” she told me. “But in this case the punishment doesn't fit the crime. He will have to live with this for the rest of his life.”
I had never thought of guilt as punishment.
“Oh yes,” she said. “We have to at least credit Mr. Gillespie for having a conscience. Something I guarantee the man who killed her doesn't have.”
I thought about this. I thought about the circumstances that led Mr. Gillespie to be imprisoned by guilt. I realized that my mother was right. Even after confessing, Mr. Gillespie would never be a free man.