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Just when I finally found fifteen minutes for myself, the dead man came to the door.
Not that he looked dead.
In fact, he was lively-looking, tall and thin, with dark hair shot with gray. He was nicely dressed in khakis and a blue polo shirt. Only the scar on his cheek kept him from looking distinguished. Instead it made him look rakish – like a James Bond wannabe who might be a good guy to have on your side in a bar fight. And he was smiling widely enough to display canine teeth, which gave him a wolfish look.
A blue Ford pickup truck was parked behind him in our sandy lane. It was pointed toward Lake Shore Drive, which showed he’d come around from Eighty-eighth Street, driving into our semirural neighborhood by the back road and coming past our neighbor’s house. Despite this hint that he knew the territory, the man had proved he was a stranger by coming to the front door; all our friends and relations come in through the kitchen.
He showed up around eleven o’clock on a miserably hot Monday in the second week of July. I wasn’t at all happy to hear a knock. For once our five house-guests were all occupied elsewhere at the same time, and I wasn’t due at TenHuis Chocolade – where a major chocolate crisis was underway – until one. I had been enjoying having a moment alone.
I peeked through the screen door cautiously. We rarely get salesmen, but I didn’t know of anyone else who might come by without phoning ahead. “Yes?”
The man’s grin seemed familiar, though I was sure I didn’t know him. “Hi. Are you Mrs. Woodyard? Mrs. Joe Woodyard?”
“Yes,” I answered confidently, though I’d had that title for less than three months.
“I don’t suppose your husband is home.”
“I expect him shortly.” By that I meant in an hour, but I wasn’t going to tell a stranger too much.
“Oh? Should I wait? Or I can come back.”
“Is schedule is indelicate.” Yikes! I’d twisted my tongue in a knot. As usual. “I mean indefinite!” I said. “His schedule is indefinite. Can I give him a message?”
“Well…” The stranger sighed deeply, then smiled again, showing those wolfish eyeteeth. “I guess you could tell him his father came by,” he said.
I remember staring at him for at least thirty seconds before I answered.
“I’ll tell him,” I said.
Then I slammed the door. The real, solid door, not the screen door. And I turned the dead bolt above the handle.
I moved away from the door, but the man on the porch was still clearly visible through the window. I knew he could see me too, if he glanced inside. I didn’t like that idea, so I went around the fireplace and stood at the bottom of the stairs. This seemed more subtle than slamming our antique casement window shut and yanking the curtains closed.
Now the stranger couldn’t see me lurking behind the fireplace, but I couldn’t see him either. And I found that I wanted to keep an eye on him. Where could I hide and watch him?
Hide? Why did I have the impulse to hide? The idea was absurd. Why should the idea of someone claiming to be Joe’s father make me look for a closet do duck into?
So I moved out into the living room. I didn’t hide, but I did stay near the fireplace, away from the windows, where a person walking casually through the yard wouldn’t be able to easily see me. If the man looked in through a window, I decided, I’d call the police.
Of course, if he wanted to get into the house, I had no way of stopping him short of hitting him with the fireplace poker. I had locked the front door, but our house – built in 1904 – has no air conditioning. With the temperature and the humidity both in the nineties, all the windows and doors were open. I might lock the front door, but an intruder could come in any other door or any window without trouble.
The man didn’t look into the house. I heard his footsteps leaving the porch, and I heard the door of the pickup open. He was going away. I wondered what Joe would make of the visit when I told him about it.
He might know who the man was, I realized. He might even want to contact the guy.
I grabbed a pen and a piece of junk mail that happened to be lying on the coffee table, rushed to the front door, unlocked it, and ran outside. The truck was just pulling away, and I waved the man down. He opened the right-hand window and leaned across the truck’s seat.
I tried to keep my voice noncommittal. “Can you leave a phone number?”
A faint smile crossed the man’s face. Again, he seemed familiar, and suddenly I knew why. That grin – the corners of his mouth went up just like Joe’s. And his eyes were the same bright blue.
I caught my breath, but didn’t speak.
The stranger put the truck in gear. “I’m not sure where I’ll be,” he said. “I’ll call later.”
He drove away, and I stood there gaping after him.
He simply couldn’t be Joe’s dad.
Only a few weeks earlier, I had laid a wreath of plastic carnations on Andrew Joseph Woodyard’s grave. Joe’s dad had been dead for nearly thirty years.