Cherry Hill ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
My hometown didn’t have much to recommend it. When I finally got away, I stayed away. I managed to return for a visit every three or four years and stay for three or four days. My father was dead, but my mother, nearly eighty, was remarkably the same. She was still the same mother she was when I was in second grade, only with more lines on her face and gray in her hair.
Mother liked to talk, but she lived alone, so she didn’t always have somebody to talk to. Talking to a person on the phone is not the same, she said, as talking to them in person. Whenever I saw her, she had always saved up a lot of things she wanted to tell me: Her great-niece in Calabasas had to have all her female parts removed; a woman in a nearby town shot her husband while he was sleeping and then shot herself in the heart; the one daily newspaper in town was shutting down after more than a hundred years; her hairdresser, a Portuguese woman named Vivian, was in a multi-car pileup on the highway in a rainstorm and broke her nose.
Mother’s idea of a good time was to bring down all the family pictures from the attic and sit at the dining room table and look at them one by one. She told me who was in each picture, even if I already knew. A lot of the pictures had stories to go along with them, stories I had heard many times before about long-dead aunts and uncles, weddings, deaths, births and fortunes gained and lost. The picture-viewing session could easily take all day and far into the night. It was a tedious and sometimes nauseating journey down memory lane.
When my visit was nearly half-over, mother realized we didn’t have much time, so she went into the kitchen and prepared what she remembered were my “favorite dishes” when I was in high school: fried chicken and mashed potatoes, ham and scalloped potatoes, spaghetti and meatballs. She never bothered to ask me if those were the things I still liked or, if now, all those years later, I might have preferred something else. To her I would always be sixteen.
When she needed things from the store, she asked me if I would drive her. I needed some time alone, so I generously offered to take the list and get the things on my own while she stayed home and relaxed. She gave me the list and hurried into the kitchen to make some chocolate cupcakes.
After I had the groceries safely stowed in the back of the car, I wasn’t in any hurry to get back. I drove around for a while in the town where I grew up, taking in the sights, such as they were.
The downtown business district was like a ghost town now. Most of the businesses were closed up and the buildings remained empty, some with boards covering the windows. A long time ago, when I was still in school, the town had a movie theatre, a couple of drugstores, some restaurants, a doctor’s office or two, two banks, clothing stores, a hardware, a Chevrolet dealer, a Woolworth’s and even a book store that sold magazines and newspapers. All of them long-gone.
I drove by the high school. The street was still familiar to me, but the building where I went to school has been replaced long ago by a sprawling, low, brick building that looked like a shoe factory. The old building at least had character; the new building had none. Not far past the school was the only hospital in town, the sight of which still scared me. Then there was the little park where we used to ride our bicycles and have Boy Scout wiener roasts.
Past the old train station, over the railroad tracks, across the river and on out the old highway into farm country, I kept going for a couple of miles until I came to Cherry Hill cemetery. I turned on my left turn signal and waited until it was safe to turn.
Cherry Hill was as old as the town. The oldest graves were from the 1870s. My grandparents and great-grandparents were buried there, along with various aunts, uncles, cousins, a few teachers I had in school and a couple of classmates who didn’t make it very far into adulthood. My own father, to spite my mother, was cremated and had his ashes dumped into the smelly river where he fished for bass as a child. I hope the fish enjoyed his ashes.
The cemetery was deserted and peaceful. I drove around for a while and parked under a majestic maple tree at the top of a hill and rolled down my window to breathe in the pure air. I heard a mourning dove cooing off in the distance and then another one answering the first one. The perfect sound effect for a country cemetery.
I got out of the car and walked down the hill among the gravestones, small ones and big ones, some ostentatious and some modest. I had always found cemeteries fascinating, just reading the names and dates off the stones: children, old people and all those in between. There was the grave of Siamese twin boys, born and died before World War I. Not far from there was the mass grave of children who died in an orphanage fire in town in 1911. Then there were influenza victims from 1918 and a few soldiers killed in France in World War I. (The graves from World War II and Korea were in a different part of the cemetery.)
In the last row of graves before the fence, I found the lonely grave of Leta Bluet, a girl in my class in high school who died in eleventh grade. The granite stone, about eighteen inches high, had weeds growing around it. I pulled some of the weeds up by the roots and tossed them aside, disturbing a myriad of tiny insects living in the grass.
High school girls don’t usually die, but when they do there’s a good reason, such as illness or accident. In the case of Leta Bluet, her death was caused by another person, a man who worked as a janitor at the school named Curley Heinrich. I suppose Curley was a nickname. Somebody said his real name was Alphonse.
Curley didn’t fit the image of a school janitor. He was only about thirty, with dark hair and dark eyes. He hardly spoke at all but when he did speak he had a slight foreign accent. He walked with a pronounced limp, always wore a uniform, and was on the small side, no more than five feet, seven inches tall and a hundred and forty pounds. He was always sweeping the floors, cleaning up where somebody had vomited, or fielding complaints about the room being too hot or too cold.
When Curley wasn’t working at the school, we would see him driving around town in his blue pickup truck, smoking a cigarette. Most of the time he’d be alone but sometimes there’d be another person with him in the truck, a man or a woman. A lot of people found Curley interesting and mysterious, but I never paid much attention; I found him easy to ignore.
There were all kinds of rumors going around about Curley: He was a spy and was wanted by the FBI; he was serving a life sentence in a federal penitentiary and had escaped; he had a wife and several children but he didn’t live with them.
I had a couple of classes with Leta Bluet. I knew her well enough to know she lived with her mother, who was some kind of a nurse, and didn’t have a father. One day she came to school with a black eye and when I asked her what happened she said she and her mother had a fight and her mother hit her. She wore dark glasses until the eye cleared up.
Leta was moderately attractive but not what you would call pretty. If she had had enough money for good clothes and a stylish hairdo, she would have been among the more popular girls in school, but she claimed not to care about those things. Several of the less savory boys in school went out with her and she didn’t mind being seen with them, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. She was the kind of girl my mother told me to not be seen with. I didn’t care, though; if somebody was my friend, I didn’t care what other people thought of them. In a small town, there are always lots of ignorant people.
One afternoon when I was walking downtown, I saw Curley drive by in his pickup truck. He had somebody in the truck with him and when I took a second look I knew it was Leta Bluet. He might have just been giving her a ride home, but I was sure there was more to it than that. I hoped she’d tell me about it the next day at school, but she didn’t mention it and I didn’t want to ask.
A few days later Leta asked me if I could keep a secret and when I said I could, she told she and Curley had been going out together on dates. Curley didn’t want anybody to know about it, though, because he was afraid he’d get fired for dating a student. I was a little surprised because he was about twelve years older than she was, but after I thought about it I saw that it made perfect sense. It was only natural she would want what everybody thought she shouldn’t have.
It was October and we were well into November when something happened to Leta Bluet. She didn’t show up for school and didn’t call in to say she was sick. It wasn’t like her to miss without a good reason. According to her mother, Leta hadn’t been home for two nights; she (the mother) was starting to get a little worried.
After Leta had been missing for a week, everybody assumed the worst. The police came and talked to us at school, first to the whole class and then to each of us individually. Whenever I saw Curley, changing fluorescent tubes or cleaning up a mess in the cafeteria, I thought he was the one person the police should be questioning; he probably knew more about what happened to Leta than anybody.
In the second week of Leta’s disappearance, her mother found her (Leta’s) diary, hidden in the closet. In the diary, Leta confessed that she and Curley had been intimate on several occasions and that she wanted to marry him, even if he was already married. (Was he?) When Leta’s mother turned the diary over to the police, Curley became the main suspect in Leta’s disappearance. (I imagined that the police subjected Curley to the kind of intense interrogation I had seen in the movies—the kind of grilling that makes you feel sorry for the suspect, even if he is a terrible rat.)
It was as if a bomb had hit the school. As awful as it was, it was the biggest thing ever to happen, in the school or in the town. If anything can spice up your life, it’s the murder of a person you know. It was all anybody could talk about. The principal closed the school and told everybody to go home and get it all talked out before returning to school the next day.
On the day of Leta’s funeral, we received the final piece of the puzzle: the police examination of Leta’s body showed she was in the early stages of pregnancy. The newspaper headlines and the TV coverage were lurid. The town ate it up.
So, everybody in our class went to Leta’s funeral; we were all officially in mourning, even those who would have nothing to do with her when she was alive. Curley didn’t go to the funeral; he was in police custody.
After a trial lasting about three months, he was found guilty in a jury trial of second-degree murder and sentenced to twenty-five years in a federal penitentiary. A lot of people thought it wasn’t enough. If he didn’t die in prison, he’d be out by the time he was sixty.
The furor died down after almost a year and eventually everybody moved on and stopped talking about what happened to Leta. Nobody would ever entirely forget it, though.
That evening while we were having dinner, I asked mother if she remembered Leta Bluet.
“Of course I remember her,” she said. “What an awful thing!”
“After I got the groceries today, I drove out to Cherry Hill.”
“Why did you do that?”
“Just looking around. I wasn’t looking for Leta’s grave, but I found it anyway. It’s in a lonely part of the cemetery. I pulled up some weeds that were growing around her gravestone.”
“Her mother died a few years ago. Leta didn’t have any other family. They said her parents were never married.”
“It’s been almost thirty years since it happened,” I said.
“In a way it seems like no time at all. Did you know that man is out of jail now?”
“That foreigner that killed Leta.”
“How do you know?”
“Everybody knows about it and everything thinks it’s terrible,” she said. “He should have been given the electric chair.”
“Does anybody know where he lives?”
“He lives right here in town just as bold as you please. He’s got a young wife and children. They go around town as if nothing ever happened. It seems he would have wanted to live someplace else, where people didn’t know him.”
“He can live wherever he wants, I suppose.”
“It just doesn’t seem right.”
“I’d like to see him,” I said.
“Just to see him. See how much he’s changed.”
“That’s morbid,” she said. “You’d better not go anywhere near him.”
We moved on to other topics, but that evening I looked his name up in the phone directory. I didn’t expect him to have a telephone and if he did have one I didn’t think his name would to be in the book, but there it was, as plain as four fingers and a thumb: Alphonse “Curley” Heinrich.
Also his address, in a part of town I knew well.
The next morning I told my mother I had to go to the bank but instead went to the address given in the phone book for Alphonse “Curley” Heinrich. It was a two-story house with a white fence and big trees in the yard. I parked the car and went up and knocked on the door.
A plain-faced woman came to the door and looked at me.
“Mrs. Heinrich?” I asked.
“Is your husband at home?”
“He’s in the basement. I’ll go get him. Would you like to come in?”
“No, thanks. I’ll wait here.”
I stood there on the front porch, peering into the dark house through the screen door. I heard voices, footsteps, closing doors. I must have stood there at least five minutes before I heard somebody coming toward me from the back of the house.
And then I saw the outline of a man and I knew it was him: the thirty-year-old man had become the sixty-year-old man. He still had the same dark hair, only now with a lot of gray. There were lines around his eyes and wrinkles on his forehead.
“Yes?” he said.
“You haven’t changed much,” I said.
“I said you haven’t changed much.”
“Who are you?”
“You don’t know my name and it doesn’t matter anyway.”
“All right,” he said. “What is it you want?”
“I don’t want anything. I was a friend of Leta Bluet’s. I wanted to see what you look like after all these years.”
He came out the door and took a couple of steps toward me until his face was inches from mine.
“Are you some kind of a ghoul?” he asked.
“No, I’m not a ghoul.”
“Well, there’s nothing here for you to see, so you might as well move on.”
“Doesn’t it bother you? I mean, about Leta?”
“Look,” he said. “That was all a long time ago. The past is dead and buried. I’ve moved on. We’ve all moved on.”
“All right,” I said. “The next time you don’t have anything to do, you might take a drive out to Cherry Hill cemetery and visit her grave, since you’re the reason she’s there.”
Then I turned around and walked away, off the porch and down the front steps to my car.
“It isn’t what you think!” he called after me. “It isn’t what anybody thinks! If you ever want to hear the truth, you’ll only hear it from me!”
“Don’t bother!” I said, but I was too far away for him to hear.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp