I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was a child, but never dreamed it would be possible. I assumed the title of “author” was reserved for elevated, wise and tall people. Sort of like Joyce Carol Oates. So when I graduated from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs with an M.A. in East European Economics, I figured my best bet was to go into journalism. Somehow writing non-fiction seemed a more attainable goal than fiction.
I got a job as a reporter at Fortune Magazine, and later was appointed senior editor at the Foreign Policy Association. I loved both jobs, but when I began having children, it seemed as though it would be better to work at a job that didn’t require me to fly to South Africa.
So there I was, at home with my children, and I began to read (when I wasn’t running around like a nut). My life style was better suited to short stories than novels, and I was amazed at what a variety of short stories there were. I began reading Grace Paley and V.S. Pritchett and Peter Taylor and Edith Wharton and on and on. After a couple of years, I began to think I might be able to write one myself.
My first short story was about a baby shower gone disastrously wrong, and I’ll never forget the day the editor of the University of Nebraska Press called to tell me they would be publishing that story. Over time, my stories were published in many places, among them: South Dakota Quarterly, The Chattahoochee Review, The American Literary Review, www.anderbo.com, Best American NonRequired Reading 2009, and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
Having a story published in Ellery Queen was what gave me the confidence to consider writing a mystery novel. Up until that point I found the whole idea intimidating. How were you supposed to handle clues? How could I come up with an idea for a murderer? But writing “Dear Murderer” taught me that a mystery story is like most other stories in that it revolves around the characters of the people involved. “Dear Murderer” is one of my favorite stories that I’ve ever written, and I’m including it below. I suspect there’s a little of Maggie Dove in the narrator. They both like Snickers bars anyway.
By Susan Breen
(First published in Feb. 2011 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine)
We called my brother Sunny because when he smiled the sun came out. Big grin, curly blonde hair, every girl’s dream. But he was kind too. His kindness was what made him special. One day, toward the end of tenth grade, Jared Reiss was having trouble with his gym lock and my brother helped him twist it open. At the time, of course, there was no hint that Jared Reiss would torture and murder fifteen women. At the time all you could say of him was that he was a strange kid, picked on by bullies, an average student and no one spoke to him. Except my brother.
“What they did to him wasn’t right,” my brother said the night Reiss was finally sentenced. Or maybe it was the night he was charged. We were still young then, each of us newly married, my brother trying to make a go of it in business, me pregnant with my first child. We were having dinner at my brother’s house and my sister-in-law, Wendy, was serving chicken stuffed with spinach and cheddar cheese. Wendy loved strange combinations. She couldn’t serve meat without adding something to it: chicken stuffed with cheese, hamburger stuffed with mushrooms, steak stuffed with spinach. Everything with Wendy needed to be supplemented.
“That’s ridiculous,” Wendy said. “Reiss would have been a monster whether he’d been bullied or not.”
My sister-in-law was always looking for a fight. Even when she and my brother were first married. No matter what he said, she said otherwise, though he never got mad about it. Liked her fire, he’d say. I didn’t. I tried, because I loved my brother so much, but Wendy wore me down. She was beautiful, but in the way an ice sculpture is: cold, hard and finely drawn.
“Who’s to say,” my brother responded. “Maybe the evil would have stayed dormant in Reiss if those kids hadn’t pushed him so hard.”
“Not for nothing,” my sister-in-law snapped, “but don’t you think it’s strange every kid in the high school picked on him? Don’t you think Reiss might have had something to do with it? Maybe they recognized something evil in him. Maybe it wasn’t so much taunting as self-preservation.”
“I remember one time Ezra Watts crammed raw chicken down Reiss’s throat,” I said. Involuntarily I looked down at the chicken on the plate in front of me, pink verging on raw, bits of unmelted yellow cheese clotting on the plate.
“They picked on your sister,” Wendy said, “and she didn’t become a serial killer.”
Sunny’s face turned red. Their dining room chairs were black, the carpet white, silver mirrors reflected your every sin. Black and white and red all over. “No one picked on my sister,” Sunny said. He swelled up like one of those exotic lizards. He was my protector, always had been. Even after I became the mother of four strong boys my brother always worried about me. Picking on me was the only thing Wendy could ever do to annoy him.
When my boys were in elementary school, and Sunny’s daughter was in third grade, my husband had to stop working. He got sick. It was a hard time for us. Although we health insurance, money was tight. So I went to work at one of my brother’s gas stations. He owned five by then. He was successful for the same reason he’d been popular in high school, because people liked and trusted him.
On my first day on the job, Sunny showed me around the candy counter, which was the part of the gas station I’d be manning. There were all sorts of tricks to the trade: the key to the cash register needed to be inserted in a particular way, the combination to the refrigerators had the numbers of my birthday. There was a place for receipts, envelops set aside for special people who came by, refill boxes of candy tucked in a dark closet. Sunny kept his arm around me while he showed me the ropes. By then he was closing in on thirty, but he still had that golden aura. He was tall, fair haired, balding just a little bit, which he hid by cutting his hair real close. He wore a Yankee hat all the time and a slippery leather jacket.
When he told me my salary, I jumped. “That’s crazy,” I said.
“You take it, Bib Sis,” he said. “Set some aside for a rainy day.”
I thought of what the money would mean.
“Don’t tell Stew,” he whispered to me. “Just keep it for yourself.”
“I can’t do that,” I said. “For better or worse. You know. But I will take the money. It will help.”
He teared up then. He was a sentimental man. Once I came across him crying over the beauty of a sunset.
“You okay?” he asked, meaning was it all right that my husband was sick, that my boys were crazy, that we were not able to move to a big house, as he had. That I was working at a gas station, selling candy bars. That my life was turning out harder than expected.
“You know what,” I said. “It’s okay.” I still had a lot, more than I’d ever expected really. What Wendy’d said so many years ago was true. Kids had teased me in high school; just like Jared Reiss, I’d been the butt of jokes. They told me I was slow, a screw up, ugly, and sometimes when I looked at my four handsome wild boys and my devoted husband, I swelled with joy. Fact was, I’d never expected my life to be easy.
Sunny cleared his throat then, wiped his eyes. “You’re the only good person I know,” he said, which seemed funny to me. I wasn’t good. I was just content.
The gas station at which I worked was located on Hempstead Turnpike at the intersection of the high school, penitentiary and the hospital, so an assortment of interesting people came by to buy gas and candy. Students, criminals, teachers, doctors, nurses. I loved trying to guess what type of candy people would buy because unlike every other choice you make in life, a decision about candy is based only on pleasure. The young went for Skittles, the older ones for rich chocolate. People agonized over Dots because they knew they would suck out a filling, and yet they always gave in. The temptation of something so soft and sweet was hard to turn away.
Some people threw their money at me. Others looked at me steadily when they ordered. Raisinets were unpopular, and I told Sunny to stop stocking them. I kept a list of those candies that were selling well.
“Why don’t you alphabetize the candy bars,” my sister-in-law said one warm September afternoon when she dropped by to see me. By that point I’d been working at the gas station for two years and this was the second time she’d visited. I suspected trouble and fought down the tightness in my back. She must’ve just been to a conference because she was wearing a suit. Pink, trim, feminine, high heels. She sold cosmetics.
“You should put the Snickers next to the Take Fives,” she said, pointing. “And move the Chunkies next to the Charleston Chews. Wouldn’t that be faster?”
“I don’t want to go fast,” I replied. “I like spending time with people.”
Time had been hard on Wendy. She was as beautiful as she’d always been, but her mouth had acquired a pinch. She and her daughter didn’t get along well and Sunny liked to come over to my house, small though it was, and play baseball with my boys. Whenever it was his turn to bat, he hit a home run and the boys would have to go scattering far and wide to field it. The neighborhood kids liked to join in the games, the ice cream truck came by. The mothers sat on lawn chairs and my husband, who could barely walk by then, would maneuver himself onto the stoop and clap.
“Don’t you want to do something with your life,” Wendy said.
“I have four sons. I think that’s quite an achievement,” I answered, though I felt badly as soon as I spoke because she and my brother had only been blessed with one child, a little girl who twitched when you touched her and had none of my brother’s largeness of spirit.
“How do you think it makes Sunny feel, seeing you work here?” she whispered.
That shut me up. I’d never thought about that. She was right. My brother was proud, although he’d never acknowledge it. He talked often about his wife’s beauty. I knew he felt I’d married beneath myself and had offered to send my boys to private schools. I’d said no, not because of my pride but because I knew it would ruin my relationship with my brother, and that was more important to me than anything.
Next time he came into the gas station I asked him about it. Did it upset him that I worked there?
“Wendy bothering you?”
“I don’t want to be an embarrassment.”
He hugged me then and as he enveloped me I smelled his aftershave. I also smelled summer, youth and hope, fresh grass and baseball and beer. What a gift, I thought, to have someone like him by my side my whole life.
“Don’t you worry about Wendy,” he said. “I’ll take care of her.”
Not long after that Jared Reiss’s mother came to the gas station. One of the strangest things about the whole case was that after her son had been convicted of murdering all those women, his mother stayed in the family house. Not only didn’t she move away, she continued with her life in much the same way as she had before, gardening, going to the library, going to church. She lived in a house not far away from my own, a maroon split level with sheared off hedges. She looked like a teacher, head bent forward to make a point. She may well have been a teacher. I remembered she’d been pursuing some occupation that required her to be out of her house at regular hours, which was why Jared had the house to himself so much. I recognized her immediately.
The candy shop was empty when she came in, which was unusual. So I felt nervous when she walked up to the cash register, though I knew I was being unfair. She hadn’t done anything. She hadn’t murdered those women and yet I felt angry toward her. Her inattention had brought something evil into my town. Then I thought of my brother befriending Reiss. How he’d spoken to him when nobody else had. That kindness had mattered to Reiss, but to my brother too. That one kindness was something my brother came back to over and over again over the years, talking about it more frequently than his business successes, I’d noticed, as though Sunny realized that in that moment of reaching out to Reiss he’d achieved a height he’d never reach again. Could I do less? I wondered, I, who had benefitted in so many ways from my brother’s kindnesses. I was still puzzling it all out when I noticed Mrs. Reiss stealing a Snickers bar.
“Hey!” I cried out. I couldn’t believe it. Her son was in prison for murder and she was stealing candy from a gas station. Not to say kids from the high school didn’t try to steal from me, because they did, and usually I let them. Once. It was almost like they had to get it out of their system. But this was a woman in her fifties. She was dressed formally: gray suit, silk blouse with ties at the neck that twisted into a bow. Only afterwards I realized she was dressed to see her son. She must have been to the jail, then walked over to get a snack.
“Can you pay for it?” I asked.
She shook her head no. The bell over the door chimed. New customer.
“Pay for it next time,” I said. How poor could she be? I wondered. She still owned her house. Maybe the trial fees.
The next Thursday she came and paid for the new candy bar, but not for the old one. I considered making a point of it but one of the young mothers was standing by the counter with her baby all dewy and clean. She’d run out of gas, worried her husband would be mad at her. It wasn’t the time.
Mrs. Reiss came every Thursday after that, bought her Snickers bar and hovered. Never spoke, but seemed to enjoy listening to me chat with the various patrons. Sometimes she leafed through an almanac, sometimes she walked up and down the aisles looking at snacks. I noticed she never picked up the newspapers. On Christmas I wished her a happy holiday. On Halloween I offered her free candy corns from a bowl shaped like a witch’s claw. One time my brother came by and smiled at her, but I’m not sure he knew who she was.
Wendy didn’t come in often to see me. She was busy with her job, and she took no pride in her husband owning a gas station. She didn’t come to our Sunday dinners anymore, so I was surprised to see her one hot August afternoon when she walked through the door. She was pale, her dark hair hung limp. Immediately she sniffed the air.
She hated the smell of gasoline. Then she noticed Mrs. Reiss and did an exaggerated double take.
“Do you know who she is?” she whispered.
“You let her come in here.”
I shrugged. “She didn’t commit a crime.”
Wendy walked right up to Mrs. Reiss, who was, as always, dressed formally, this time in a pants suit and polka dot blouse.
“Don’t you have somewhere else to be?”
Mrs. Reiss didn’t argue with Wendy any more than she’d argued with me over the candy bar. She set the almanac back on the stand, looked at me for just a moment. For the one and only time in all the years I’d known her, I met her eyes. Really met them, and for just a moment, the two of us connected. For a second, we were not a middle-aged woman with troubles and the mother of a murderer. For just a moment we were two women united by dislike of my sister-in-law.
“You make me tired,” I said to Wendy when she came back to the counter.
“I’m planning a party for your brother’s fortieth birthday,” she said. “It’s going to be spectacular. Make sure you keep the day free.”
Sunny’s fortieth birthday. What could I possibly get him for a present? What do you give to a man who’s given you so much? Who’s rescued you from poverty, looked after you for years, played baseball with your boys and been like a second father to them. Nothing seemed right. Clothes, books, jewelry. I’d have mortgaged my house to buy him something special, but I knew he wouldn’t want me to spend a lot of money. I needed a present that was singular. Something as special as he was.
For weeks I agonized over it.
Then, one warm Thursday afternoon, the answer appeared out of nowhere. It was September. The air smelled clean, the trees in the parking lot turned red and gold. I was straightening out some candy when Mrs. Reiss came in. The moment I saw her, I knew. What was the one thing my brother talked about more and more frequently, the one thing he felt made him remarkable? His kindness to Jared Reiss. I believed he’d come to think of that as the finest moment in his life.
“I need to ask you something,” I said.
She looked at me warily and I knew she was thinking of the same thing I was, that unpaid candy bar from so many years ago. She owed me. We’d both known at some point I’d ask her to pay up.
“Would you ask your son to write my brother a letter? Wishing my brother a happy birthday.”
Still she didn’t speak. Probably what I was asking was worth a lot of money; there were nuts out there who bought Reiss’s art work. A man like that, a serial killer, would have his followers. For a moment I considered taking back my words. But then I thought of Sunny’s face, how much he would treasure this note. There wasn’t much time. Sunny’s party was next weekend.
Mrs. Reiss came the next Thursday with the letter. She strode to the front counter, set the envelope down. Then she turned around and left. I knew I’d never see her again. The thought warmed me. I realized that woman had been haunting me. She was like a blot on my conscience, punishment for a crime I hadn’t committed. She was like every second thought you ever had, every bad break. A reminder of all that might go wrong in life. When she’d left and the store was quiet, I opened up the letter. The name of the prison was engraved on top. Reiss’s handwriting was large and sloped to the left.
“Dear Sunny,” it read. “Happy Birthday.”
“I’ve never forgotten you. You were the only person in that school who was kind to me. Thank you, Jared.”
I stared at the letter, amazed. I’d done it. The fact was I’d come to think of myself as a screw-up. But for once, for perhaps the only time in my life, I’d done something right. I was so happy I opened up a Snickers bar and ate the whole thing, which normally I wouldn’t do because I was always struggling over those last five pounds.
The next day, Jared Reiss escaped from jail. The first successful break-out in the jail’s history. Banner headline across the top of the newspaper. I can’t explain the feeling that flooded me except that it was like labor. It was as though my body was in the grips of something larger than me. The letter from Reiss was still in my pocketbook. I pulled it out and clutched it to my breast. For more than twenty years we’d had no contact with Reiss and now, the day before he escaped, I’d sent his mother to talk to him about my brother. What if he went to look for Sunny? What if he thought of him as a friend? Something moved in the store and I screamed, though it was just a bunch of high school kids looking to buy soda. I urged them out of there, locked up the store. Through the window I could see am ambulance go by, screaming its way into the hospital.
I ripped up the letter. I couldn’t tell my brother what I’d done. How could I disappoint him like that? Wendy would be livid. I pictured her beautiful face twisted in contempt, and this time she’d be right. What had I been thinking about? The only thing to do was go see Mrs. Reiss. Perhaps she could call off her son. I drove over to the house, which was so near my own. I walked up the front door, rang the bell. This was where it had all taken place, I thought, as I waited for her to answer. There was the garage in which Reiss had murdered all those women. Once, when my brother was little, he accidentally ran himself over because he was playing in the car and released the emergency brake. His ear came off and I remembered the drive to the hospital, his head on my lap, the smell of blood. Sweet, sticky. She had to have known what was going on.
Mrs. Reiss opened the door. I didn’t recognize her for a moment because she was wearing a track suit.
“You have to make sure he doesn’t go to my brother,” she said.
She didn’t speak and I realized I’d never heard her speak. All those years and I’d seen her shake her head, seen her eyes look at me. But never heard her voice. Suddenly that frightened me, someone who had so much silence inside of her, who’d raised a son who was a serial killer.
“He’s my brother and he’s dearer to me than anyone in this world,” I said.
I touched her hand, she flinched, and I knew then she’d do nothing. She was a woman who could not, would not, speak. This was her curse. She turned for an instant toward the garage. I pictured her son’s face, so pale and twisted in fury. There was no time to waste. Sunny had to be warned. My own foolish pride didn’t matter. I raced to his house, ran up his front steps and found the front door unlatched.
I went inside, already starting to cry, wondering if I’d find his body on the floor. “Sunny,” I yelled out, running into the living room. The white furniture was as clean as always except for a glass of white wine knocked over onto the carpet. The spill resounded in my mind like a scream.
“Sunny,” I called out. I ran into the kitchen, where there was a door that led down into a basement. A long time ago my niece had fallen down those very steps. She’d been bouncing in a walker, pushed past the protective fence. I ran down the steps, the sound of her crashing walker echoing in my heart.
My brother was sitting on one of the bar stools, neat scotch in front of him. Pale, tired. But alive. “Thank God you’re all right,” I said, throwing myself into his warmth, though it was obvious he wasn’t all right.
“Wendy’s left me,” he said. “She disappeared. We were supposed to meet for lunch today. She didn’t come to the restaurant. I can’t find her anywhere. She left me.”
Instantly I saw what had happened: Wendy coming home, Reiss waiting for my brother, finding his wife instead.
“No,” I whispered. “No.” Poor unloved Wendy. I thought of what I’d read about what Reiss’d done to those women. Body parts found in the East River, hands still clenched to ward off the terror.
“She didn’t leave you,” I sobbed. “This is my fault.”
“It’s not your fault, Big Sis,” he said, his pale face reddening. “You know what she was like. I’ve been expecting her to leave me for years. Wendy was never happy with me.”
I put my hand on his hand, breathed in the clean smell of soap. “I have to tell you something Sunny and you’re not going to believe it. I’m so stupid.” I explained the whole thing. About how I’d been so desperate to get him a birthday present, how I’d come to know Reiss’s mother, how I’d just gone and tried to get her to call off her son, but the damage was done.
“He escaped from jail,” I finished up. “Reiss must have come looking for you and found Wendy instead. We’ll have to call the police. We’ll do it now. I’m so sorry.”
I buried my head against his shoulder. I could feel the twitch of his heart underneath me.
“You didn’t do anything wrong, Big Sis.” He breathed in deeply. “It was me. I killed her.”
He shook his head slightly in a move I’d seen countless TV actors do. His face looked different, less genial than it had always been. How well did I know him? I loved him, but how well did I know him. I thought of my sister-in-law, always anxious and angry, always unhappy, always threatening to leave. “We had a fight.”
“I didn’t mean to do it, Big Sis. But what if…” He paused. “In a way, this is like a gift, isn’t it? The police will assume Reiss killed her.”
Off in the distance fire alarms sounded. Danger. The trinity of the hospital, school and jail. I thought of what Wendy said all those years ago. That the bullies had recognized something in Jared Reiss. That they had picked on him for a reason. Her words had disturbed me then and stayed with me. Now I knew why. Because my brother should have recognized something was wrong with Jared too. He should have stayed away from him. It was empathy, not kindness that caused him to befriend Reiss. He recognized another. But what could I do? I loved him.
“Yes, Sunny,” I answered.