BY JAN WIEZOREK
Jan Wiezorek writes and teaches at an elementary school in Chicago. Copyright is held by the author.
THE WAY I HEARD IT told from my grandmother, Frank Heim, the old chauffeur, could stay there for as long as he lived. “He’d be in his 70s now,” she said. When I think of Frank, I think of a watch face that bears no relationship to time. He lived an odd life. Maybe he was wound too tight.
I encountered him from a short distance on Saturday morning. Mitzy and I were taking a short cut across the Jergen’s property — their private estate — to the old Catholic cemetery. We were marching along the timber path when up across the ravine I saw Frank. He was standing out on the stoop of his one-storey, yellow-frame house on the hill. That was the house the old Mrs. Jergen said was Frank’s for life. She put it in her will that way.
Frank had just straightened his back after lighting his pipe. As I walked, I could smell the spicy tobacco coming my way through the damp air of fall. He had buttoned his green-and-red wool plaid shirt right up to his scrawny, whiskered neck. And even from a distance it looked like someone had carved out a peach-pit-size hole where his Adam’s apple should have been. He hitched up his grey cotton trousers while his teeth held the corncob pipe stem in place.
Mitzy let out a bark and romped in Frank’s direction. He turned toward her and scowled. It was such a prune face that she high-tailed it back toward me. I kept walking. “Morning,” I said. I raised a hand out toward him through the moist air, but he was back with his pipe, having none of us.
On the return route during our morning hike, there was Frank again. I didn’t especially want to be seen trespassing through the Jergen’s property a second time, so I hunched down and Mitzy sat shivering. Now her short brown hair twitched at the sight of Frank. He had backed out the green Chevy sedan from the garage to the Sinclair gasoline pump that stood beside the house. While he gassed the 1950s car with his right hand, he smoked away with his left. When he was done, he disengaged the nozzle, returned it to the pump, and raised the “off” lever. Then, he opened the car trunk wide. It was empty except for a spare.
I’m not certain I can explain what I saw next. He raised both hands almost in prayer and shook his head — like he was trying to get bugs off himself. Then, he squatted down on his haunches, and then stood erect like a soldier. Next, he shook from his back violently, and his arms flailed. I saw him bend down, mimicking a retching vomit. He did this over and over — like a compulsive ritual. It was hands, head, haunches, erect, back, arms, bend, retch, repeat. He did all this toward the trunk.
I heard the Jergen’s Rolls-Royce leaving from the big house further up the hill. Frank heard it too and stopped his motions abruptly. Through all this, the pipe was somehow still in his mouth, but the tobacco had been whipped out of place. He filled it up again from the plastic pouch in his back pocket. Then, he hiked up his pants from the waist.
The young Mrs. Jergen was slowing down to talk to Frank. So, I stood and continued walking quickly down the timber path and out of sight, with Mitzy leading the way. The Frank I barely knew — but now knew all too well, it seemed — hadn’t seen us.
As I reached the bottom of the hill, the road and the timber path met. The young Mrs. Jergen’s gold Rolls stopped at the base of the hill next to me. Caught, I thought to myself. Trespassing.
The dark window of the car went down, and the young Mrs. Jergen leaned out toward me. “Sir, we don’t mind if you stay on the timber path,” she said, “but please know this is private property.”
It was hard not to know. At the base of the hill stood two tall pillars of stone, a demarcation that suggested ownership — and one impossible to miss. Atop the pillars were the words Mound Haven etched in black metal.
“Yes,” I said. “Just out for a walk. I’m Jamie Jasper; my grandmother Francine cleaned the big house in the 1940s and 1950s,” I said, thinking that maybe that made it OK for me to trespass.
“Really,” she said. Her expression softened. She opened the door to reveal white leather with red trim and a mini-bar in the back. “Well, I’d certainly like to have you and your grandmother come for a visit.”
“My grandmother has passed on, but I’d be pleased to see the house,” I said. “To see where grandmother worked for so many years.”
“Yes,” the young Mrs. Jergen said. She moved back into her seat and adjusted her position uncomfortably. “Of course, we haven’t the staff now that my mother-in-law had so many years ago. But do drop by tomorrow afternoon around three for tea. Goodbye, Mr. Jasper.”
The window moved up to reveal black glass, and the gold-coloured vehicle turned left back toward town and out of sight.
Mitzy and I stood at the point where the private road and the private timber path met, right by the stone pillars and the etched metal. “Yes, I’ll do that,” I said to myself. “Thank you,” I said aloud, now to no one in particular. Mitzy looked up at me. She was ready to go home.
Come Sunday at three, Mitzy and I walked up through the drizzle along the timber path and veered off toward the big house that sat in an oak grove near the edge of a cliff. The three-storey mock-Tutor home from the 1920s had a few stairs and a walkway of flagstones that led to the dark front doorway arch. I thought the half-timbered decoration gave English-style charm to the Midwest, but it still looked somewhat out of place.
Before I reached the door, a maid appeared. “Hello, Mr. Jasper?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, stopping in my tracks. I wasn’t certain what else to say.
“Mrs. Jergen has been called away, but she insisted you come in for tea,” the maid said. “I’m Mary. Please, do come in.” She opened the door wide, her smile was inviting, and I walked forward. But then I thought about Mitzy.
The maid looked at the dog as well. “I’m afraid your companion will need to say outside,” Mary said. “Mrs. Jergen’s orders.”
“Go ahead, girl. Go run around. I’ll be back soon,” I said. I patted Mitzy’s back and scratched under her neck. Then I thought, dog hands. At tea. What would someone like Mrs. Jergen think? I wiped my hands on my pants and strode up to the Tutor arch doorway.
Actually, I don’t remember much about the interior of the house. The maid sat me down in a living room with two fireplaces, but neither of them was burning that fall day. That just seemed wrong to me. I sat on a sofa, and on the table before me rested a silver tea service and a variety of sweets on a three-tiered standing tray.
Mary never came back. I stood and looked out the window. It offered a breathtaking view of the river and its islands, as well as the far-off bluffs.
Outside, I heard Mitzy growl and then whine in pain.
I dashed out the front door. Frank, the old chauffeur , had a chain in his hand — like the ones used for pulling autos out of ditches — and he was swinging it, apparently hitting Mitzy.
“Hey,” I said. “What’s the matter with you? Leave my dog alone.”
Frank dropped the chain links and walked over to confront me.
“That dog should have never been there,” he said. There was gravel in his throat, but no pipe in his mouth. His sunken neck caught my eye again. I couldn’t determine if he had been in an accident or whether he had had an operation at some point.
“I was just visiting, and we’re leaving now,” I said. “Just leave the dog alone.”
Frank turned in a huff and walked back across the lawn and over to his yellow-frame house by the ravine. His back shook as he walked, and occasionally an arm would flail upward but then return to its rightful place at his side.
Mitzy looked OK. I think she probably had been hit by the chain, but she shook it off somehow and walked back with me down along the timber path and out past the stone pillars.
At the foot of the hill the gold-coloured Rolls approached, and Mrs. Jergen’s black window moved downward. “I’m sorry to have missed you, Mr. Jasper, but I was called away unexpectedly.”
“That’s fine, Mrs. Jergen,” I said. “Thank you for tea. You have a lovely home.”
“Again, my apologies, but thank you for coming.”
The window was traveling upward when I said, “Mrs. Jergen.” I thought I had been too late. The window was fully up and dark. But the Rolls did not move. Suddenly, the window began its descent.
Mrs. Jergen pressed her lips together, and then she turned the corners of her mouth upward. “Yes?” she asked.
“I just wanted you to know that I had a run in with Frank, the old chauffeur .”
“Yes, he attacked my dog with a heavy chain for no apparent reason,” I said. “Mitzy gets along with anyone. Frank was at fault, and he was perturbed.”
“I can well imagine,” Mrs. Jergen said. She opened her door once again. “Would you mind if I ask you to take a seat for just a moment?” She patted the white leather across from her and the mini-bar.
I sat inside the Rolls, but Mitzy rested along the road just under the stone pillars.
“My mother-in-law, the old Mrs. Jergen, asked that Frank stay on for as long as he wished. But, as you can see,” Mrs. Jergen said, “he is often unstable and quite threatening.”
Her lips pressed together firmly for several long and worrisome seconds. “Would you mind if I ask you to speak to Dr. Province about this? He is reviewing the case, and I would be indebted to you.”
Again, it seemed like such an odd request. Nearly as odd for me as tea at three, fireplaces with no fire to cut the chill, a chain-carrying aggressor with motions, and a conversation in the back of a Rolls-Royce.
“If I can help . . . .” Again, no more words came from my mouth.
“Thank you,” she said. “Dr. Province will be visiting Mound Haven tomorrow morning at 9. I’ll expect you then. Goodbye, Mr. Jasper.” She motioned with her left hand that I could now exit the vehicle.
The next morning I walked the timber path alone. Now, I doubted Mitzy would go back even if I dragged her on a leash. I looked left over toward Frank’s house. I could smell his spicy tobacco in the cool morning mist, but I didn’t see him anywhere. I veered off from the path to the flagstone approach that led to the big house. Mary was there to open the door before I reached the entrance archway.
“Good morning, Mr. Jasper,” she said. She was wearing a blue dress with an apron.
“Morning,” I said. “Mrs. Jergen asked that I speak with the doctor.”
“They are expecting you now,” she said.
I walked into the living room with the two fireplaces, and Mrs. Jergen had them both burning. A silver coffee service sat on the buffet along the wall near the window that overlooked the river, islands, and bluffs.
“Mr. Jasper,” Mrs. Jergen said, “Dr. Province has asked that you explain your encounter yesterday with Frank. Now, if you will both excuse me . . . .” She left the room and left me alone with the doctor.
“Well, are you going to tell me what you saw, or are you going to keep it a secret?” the doctor asked roughly. His balding head matched my own, but he was far older and paler than I.
I explained what I had heard and witnessed during the last two days — everything from Frank’s unsociability to his motions, from his effect on my dog to his instability and violent behaviour.
“Yes, it fits the pattern,” the doctor said. “Yes, well, I’ve known Frank for a good many years. I think it’s time we give him the care he needs in a professional setting. Living alone like this doesn’t help, either,” he said.
“Why does someone turn from health to illness?” I asked.
Well, in Frank’s case . . . .” His words trailed off as Mrs. Jergen entered the room. “Mr. Jasper was helpful, Mrs. Jergen.” The doctor continued: “I think we can safely turn the matter over to Dr. Kaufmann at the clinic.”
“Thank you for coming, Mr. Jasper,” Mrs. Jergen said. She reached out and shook my hand firmly. She exhibited a long exhalation. Then, she motioned with her right hand that I could now leave.
I smiled and turned toward the door. Mary was already there to lead me out beyond the Tutor arch to the flagstones. The sky hadn’t brightened a bit, and the moist air gave the grove a cooling dampness that always irritated my grandmother’s arthritis.
I faced Mary squarely. She smiled and tightened her apron strings. “Do you know the story behind Frank and his illness?” I asked.
“Well, yes, I thought you must have known, too,” she said.
“No, I never heard.”
Mary glanced back toward the big house, and then she walked me slowly along the flagstones. “His wife and daughter died in a car accident many years ago. He swerved his Chevy to miss a dog crossing the road,” she said. “Ever since then, he, by stages and stages, got worse, and has never been right. In the accident he was thrown from the car to safety, but not his wife or child. The car landed in the ditch. They say he put their dead bodies in the trunk and wouldn’t give them up. Isn’t that sad? I know Mrs. Jergen will be relieved when he finally leaves Mound Haven.”
“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t know.”
I said goodbye to Mary and took the timber path back down along the hill. Now, the first hints of sun were breaking through the dark morning. The brightness outlined all the deadwood and brush that surely could be cleared away along the path. Mound Haven had a chance for new growth even in still autumn mornings, I thought. I picked up a decaying branch that had fallen before me and tossed it far from view.