A short story

Blood spatters across a print of a woman's face and a laundry line
Getty / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: Read an interview with Karen Brown about her writing process.

Patty’s murder happened on a Tuesday afternoon in June, overcast and cool. You needed a sweater if you were going to work in the yard. It was 1966, a small town in Windham County, Connecticut. Milkweed and moths at screens, fields of corn and goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace. There were woods behind her new house, a cape, and small animals emerging from the shadows to scamper over the clover. Wood thrush, wind in trees. That summer, ants formed a long, narrow line from the corner of the counter, down the lower cabinets to the linoleum.

Patty woke that morning to the needs of her family—a husband heading off to work, a recently potty-trained toddler. The radio played softly in the kitchen, WPOP Top 40. You could smell oranges. She stood at the sink and looked out the window into the backyard. She might have imagined the day her daughter would play there and how she would call her in to supper through the screen. The window over the sink let in the smell of summer grass and eased the drudgery of dishwashing.

Her husband always had coffee and toast. He ate in the living room and read the paper. He’d come in late last night and hadn’t seen his daughter or his wife before they went to bed. He worked as an accountant with a manufacturing company a half hour’s drive away and was often out late. We can only guess what was said between them in these final moments. Was he apologetic and reassuring? Did he thank his wife as she handed him his plate of toast? Did she remind him that things needed taking care of? The house he’d built for them wasn’t entirely complete. There was the deck out back without a railing or stairs, missing kitchen cabinets. Did she harp? Or did nothing at all pass between them that morning but resentment and silence?

He left at 8:15, the same time every morning. Briefcase, freshly ironed dress shirt, tie. He took his daughter into his arms and said goodbye. Any other wife, watching, might have felt joy at this show of love, a small twinge of jealousy that she was excluded. If she’d been sharp and angry with him, she might have felt regret. If she’d been silent, she might have expected it to result in something more, the way we notice an absence and remark on it—didn’t there used to be a chair over there? In that corner? But Patty wasn’t like other wives. He descended the front walk and started up the Buick and drove off down the quiet country road, and Patty would’ve listened to the sound of the car coming in through that pretty kitchen window and felt relief.

Then, her mother-in-law would have come down the stairs, a heavy-footed thumping. Doris lived upstairs in an apartment her son had built for her. She used to work as a nanny for a family in the next town, but she’d been let go recently and hadn’t found another position.

Doris often stood on the bottom stair as if some invisible shield blocked her from the rest of the house. Patty would get a whiff of the peculiar smell of her—lavender and mothballs.

“He was out with that woman again last night,” Doris might have said.

Her voice, usually assertive, sounded like a child’s. The lost job, the strange voice—when her mother-in-law went off, she often behaved this way, and Patty’s only recourse was to avoid her. Let him deal with his own mother, she told me. Ignoring Doris meant that the woman would slip back upstairs. She had her own small kitchen, a sitting area, a bedroom. She had food and books, her yarn and her crochet hook—everything she needed in her own apartment.

Days with a young child are dependent on routine. Patty’s mother had cautioned her to stick to a plan. Things had been difficult after the child was born, and Patty had left her husband and taken the infant to her parents’ house. People said Patty was the nervous type—too thin, not very attractive—but I disagree. Her dark hair was smooth and lovely. She wore light-blue-framed glasses, cat-eye and stylish. Back then, it was more acceptable to be a softer woman—softness was associated with friendliness. I think people at the local grocery store judged her for her behavior after the child was born. She became nervous and unattractive in their eyes because she didn’t know how to be happy, to make a proper family.

She wore a knit top that day, the imprint found in the blood on the kitchen floor where she’d briefly lain.

Mornings, Patty often called me to arrange a playdate. I lived across the street—our house set far enough back off the country road that we had our privacy. Sometimes her little girl, Debbie, came to my house, but that day, I sent Henry over to hers. Henry was older than Debbie by two years, but he was still a preschooler, and they played well together. The playdate always lasted until 11:45, when Patty sent Henry home, and she prepared lunch for her daughter, fed her, and put her in her crib for her nap.

Nap time is the mainstay of daily life with a child. You are able, in the middle of the afternoon, to spend a whole guilt-free hour or more alone. The laundry can be folded into neat piles, the dishes done. I still sent Henry to his room for quiet time, even at nearly 5 years old, when he no longer napped. He was not allowed to leave his room until quiet time was over—a rule he always followed. Sometimes, I admit, I slipped out of the house and went for walks in the woods—brief ones. I needed them for my sanity. I was five months pregnant, not yet prepared for another child in the house. I felt like the astronauts they showed on television, strapped into their upward-facing seats, awaiting the countdown.

Patty never missed her daytime television programs. Search for Tomorrow, The Guiding Light, As the World Turns. The baby went down and she could watch while ironing, and it is believed from the blood spatter that she was ironing her husband’s dress shirts when she was attacked.

That day, Henry told me that while he and Debbie were playing, Doris came back downstairs. She sat silently in a chair in the corner, offered to make Patty and Debbie lunch.

“Let me do it,” she said. I imagined her odd, high voice. “I can make you tuna salad.”

Patty said Debbie didn’t like tuna. “Just go back upstairs,” she said.

Henry told me that Doris did not leave, that she continued to sit there in the corner watching them. At 11:45 I saw him cross their front yard through our picture window and I went outside to meet him, to bring him in for his own lunch. I often tried to imagine the scene at Patty’s—what happened after with Doris. Patty told me that the woman frightened her, that something wasn’t right.

The year before Doris came to live with them, she had been behaving strangely—saying nonsensical things, wandering from home, threatening to hurt herself—and she’d been placed in the state psychiatric hospital.

“She was released from the hospital,” I said to Patty, trying to reassure her. “The doctors wouldn’t do that unless she was better.”

Patty pressed her lips together, wrung her hands.

“You don’t understand,” she said. “No one listens to me.”

But Doris and I had chatted on the front lawn evenings, and she seemed levelheaded and kind—someone you could ask how to lift a mustard stain, or when to search for morels in our woods. She baked us a blueberry pie that summer. I told Patty she was overreacting, that the woman simply wanted to spend time with her granddaughter.

“Let me take her up with me to play. Just for a little while,” Doris often said.

And sometimes Patty relented, but perhaps that day she believed her afternoon would be ruined, and when her daughter whined to go to her grandmother, Patty refused.

“She won’t go down for her nap then,” she might have said, taking the girl into her arms.

Here, Doris might have given Patty one of her off looks. Patty described it to me once as a vacant-eyed stare—as if the woman who had been there had gone, and someone else had stepped into her body. It reminded her of the mounted animal heads on one of her old boyfriend’s living-room walls.

“They look at you and they’re dead,” she’d said. “But it’s as if they know they’re dead.”

At the bottom of the stairwell, Doris might have paused.

“Please.” She wore a skirt and blouse—the blouse tucked in and a cloth belt cinched around her thick waist. Her hair was styled into tight gray curls. Patty would ignore her, knowing from her expression that she was already resigned.

Maybe Doris said, “It’s not my fault he’s a cheat.” And, “It wasn’t me who made him that way.”

Weak sun, the windows open. Smell of cut wood from the unfinished deck and spray starch. The voices of television characters whose lives were complicated by affairs and disappearances and villains with ulterior motives, and rarely involved dishes or ironing or putting children down for naps. A child who had become more and more difficult, one Dr. Spock warned may soon be giving up the long afternoon nap altogether. Patty clung to these quiet hours, refused to let anything disturb them. Even her daughter, who may have been calling to her from her crib in the bedroom down the hall, her tiny voice perhaps the last thing Patty heard while ironing.

The murder scene was described to me by my husband. The police kept quiet in their search for a suspect and only a few details—fork, electrical cord—were leaked by the local paper.

Patty’s husband arrived home after work, a day spent the way most were—lunch with his co-workers from a truck that pulled into the loading dock each day, a departure from the office at 5 o’clock. Because he’d been out late the night before, he arrived promptly at 5:30. He noticed things were different; the front door was unlocked when Patty always kept it locked. His daughter was usually at the front bay window, awaiting his arrival—perhaps placed there by Patty to welcome him, to remind him of his responsibility as a father. The window was empty that day.

Patty didn’t believe that her husband was seeing another woman. She said that it was his mother’s idea, that Doris had told her a story of meeting the girl once.

“She’s prettier than you,” Doris had said. “I like her better.”

I was surprised that Doris would say such a thing. But I couldn’t tell Patty the woman was crazy if I’d spent so much time telling her she wasn’t. I asked instead how she and her husband were getting along.

“He’s left me alone,” Patty said. “Thankfully.”

After the baby, her husband had tried to initiate sex and Patty had said it was too soon. He had insisted and forced himself on her anyway. Patty had taken the infant and gone to her parents’ house; she wanted a divorce, but he refused to grant one. It was a condition of her return that he leave her alone. That she didn’t want to be touched.

“He thinks I’ll change my mind,” Patty said. “But I won’t.”

I might have offered her advice, suggested that she see things from her husband’s point of view, but when I tried to imagine my own husband ignoring my wishes, pinning me down to the bed and prying my legs apart, I could not. I admired her resolve in a way.

“But don’t you love him?” I asked her.

She stared at me, and I thought I could see what she meant about Doris’s look—I saw it happen to Patty just then. It was as if someone else had stepped in behind her eyes and was looking back at me. “Love him?” she said bitterly. Suddenly I knew why people didn’t like her.

The existence of the other woman came out during the trial. By then Patty’s husband had married her and moved to another state. Asked about her in court, he offered mumbled replies. The transcript repeatedly makes note of the judge’s insistence that he speak up. And maybe, asked to recount the details of a long-running affair, the discovery of his wife’s body that day, he was mortified. Not many people return from work to such a scene—pools of blood on the kitchen linoleum, a smeared trail of it leading out the sliding glass doors and across the new deck, and Patty’s body below on the ground, an electrical cord wrapped around her neck.

He ran immediately to our house—the only house within two miles of theirs. I was serving a casserole for dinner when he came to the door; the panic made him incomprehensible. He said he didn’t know where Debbie was. My husband left the table and accompanied Patty’s husband to the house, and they ran around to the backyard thinking his little girl had wandered off into the woods. That was a fear we all had—our children disappearing into the woods. When I was a child, we frightened one another with stories of the Old Leatherman. My grandmother told me he had a cave in our woods, one of many throughout the state where he stayed overnight on his circuit of the towns. “You could set a clock by his arrival,” she said. He was a beggar who spoke a garbled French. He had sewn himself a suit of leather he wore year-round—even a leather cap. As a child, she and her friends had found his cave by a running brook, discovered his stores of hickory nuts and dried berries and implements he must have used to start a fire, to dig. We were frightened of the man, but we sought his cave anyway—long days spent in the woods, looking for the running stream. The Old Leatherman was long dead.

My husband found Patty’s body on the ground below the deck in the backyard. Later, he told me his first instinct was to cover her, as if a brutal death is like nakedness, something shameful. He went inside and asked for a blanket and Patty’s husband was in the kitchen pouring a whiskey. Traipsing through all that blood with his glass. “Would you like a drink? I need a drink,” he said.

My husband, in shock himself, accepted.

“Where’s the baby?” he asked.

And Patty’s husband went to the foot of the stairs and called to his mother.

I’d been planting annuals in my front yard that afternoon, and later I had a direct view of Patty’s house through my front window, and I saw nothing. No sign of forced entry. It was a small town, and few cars traveled the road. Only one was seen in the vicinity—a black Ford driven by a teenager, a friend of the family. The witness said the car was parked in front of Patty’s house. It could not have been there long—I would have seen it. I pass our bay window all day long. Coming up from the basement with laundry, I see Patty’s house. Vacuuming the living-room rug, dusting the tables. Even from my kitchen table I can see out my front window. I didn’t see the black car, so I took issue with anyone saying it was there. The woman who claims she saw it must have been confused, I told my husband. She thought she was on Vesper Lane, not Schoolhouse Road.

But later, I admitted it was only after Patty was dead that my focus narrowed on her house. I was preoccupied that day—I might have never once looked out toward Patty’s. It wasn’t my habit to imagine what she was doing. I assumed she did what we all did back then—chopped vegetables for dinner, scrubbed the tubs and sinks, washed and folded clothing. That she was murdered while ironing wasn’t a surprise. If the murderer had slipped across to my house, what might I have been caught doing?

If the Old Leatherman had still been around, he would have been a likely suspect. But the newspapers chose the teenager driving his father’s black car. The prosecutor claimed that his sexual fantasies, repressed by his strict religious upbringing, drove him to enter the home of his friends and commit murder. This boy went to trial and could not even recount the events of that afternoon. He might have stopped by to pick up a Pyrex dish his mother had loaned Patty, he said. Maybe the door was unlocked, and he went inside. Maybe the baby was crying and there was blood on the kitchen floor. Perhaps he followed the trail to the deck, peered over the edge to glimpse the body, and fled, horror erasing everything he’d seen—a defense mechanism, his attorney claimed.

My husband never could forget. He prayed at night that the image of Patty sprawled in the patchy grass would fade, but even now, years later, it has not. He reaches for the bourbon, as if that evening with Patty’s husband, the two of them sipping from their glasses on the front stoop, triggered some alternate version of my husband, a man who’d rarely taken a drink before, to emerge. And when he’s had a drink, he’ll often return to that evening—how Doris came to the top of the stairs, holding Debbie in her arms, and called down to them: “Is she dead yet?”

Doris was questioned. Her replies were given in the high, childlike voice she’d recently adopted. She’d heard nothing unusual, she said. The baby was crying in her crib and she brought her upstairs. She didn’t know where Patty was. She heard a loud, thumping sound. She had seen a strange car in the driveway. She brought Debbie upstairs with her to play. It was determined she should be taken back to the state mental hospital for evaluation. Later, it was said she was too slight of build to have staged the attack. She had no motive to hurt Patty. And then she got cancer and died in the hospital and there were no more opportunities for questioning. For answers.

The town wanted the suspect caught so they could go back to leaving their doors unlocked, take their walks in the woods again in peace. The summer night, filled with the sound of katydids and crickets, became a space they awoke to jolted by fear. Patty’s husband and Doris were longtime residents. Doris’s former employers attested to her diligence and care in their households, as if they’d forgotten that her hospitalization had been cause for dismissal. She was a jewel, they said. The children loved her so. When it was proved that the teenager accused of the crime was elsewhere at the time Patty was killed, he was exonerated. He left town as soon as he was able, and many still assumed this was proof of his guilt and were grateful.

The idea of a murderer living among us is almost like my childish pursuit of the Old Leatherman. Why continue to believe in things that terrify us? Since that summer afternoon, my husband and I have occasionally indulged in a speculative game. It starts when the bourbon comes out and he recounts finding Patty. We both have our theories. I suggest that Patty’s husband, desperate to be with the woman he loved, hired someone to come through the sliding doors from the deck. They found a ladder propped up where the steps would have been.

“Why not ask for a divorce?” my husband says. “There was the stigma then, of course, but the alternative?”

“He was too stubborn to grant one,” I tell him. “He was prideful.”

“Resentment is a breeding ground for fury,” my husband says, his eyes glassy.

Which brings us to Doris. “She just wanted to spend time with the baby,” I say. “She felt left out, not irremediably wronged.”

My husband likes to settle on Doris. No one was seen coming to or from the house. Doris had been institutionalized.

“The insane often have superhuman strength.” He tips the bourbon into his empty glass.

It is summer and we are out on our own deck. Our children, school-aged now and manageable, are safe in bed. The fireflies bobble and dip, drunk in the expanse of the backyard, sometimes appearing close enough to startle me. I warn my husband not to let one in the house. My grandmother used to say a firefly in the house meant someone was going to die.

“We both knew Doris,” I say. “We ate her pie, took cuttings from her garden.”

“Patty was stabbed with a fork,” my husband says.

The porch light draws beetles that ping against the screen door. I scrape my chair back and flip the light off and we blend into the shadows and become strangers.

“The electrical cord,” I say. “It would have had to have been ripped out.”

“I watched that woman dig boulders out of their front lawn with her bare hands,” my husband says. “A toaster cord would’ve been nothing.”

“She knew where the knives were kept,” I say. “Why not use one?”

My husband believes it was a spontaneous act, not something planned. Kitchen utensils might have been on the table, drying in the rack beside the sink.

He is quick to pin Doris as the suspect, to assume that her mental illness made her violent. Doris with her belted skirt, her curled hair and soft hands crocheting blankets.

“Suppose Patty had a lover,” I say.

All these years, I have kept quiet. I hear the strain of the chair’s slats as my husband leans back.

“That boy was nowhere near the house. They proved that.” His voice holds a trace of irritation.

“Not him, another man,” I say. “He’d been showing up during the baby’s nap time, climbing the ladder Patty propped up to the deck, coming to the sliding door.”

“What man?” my husband says. “That’s far-fetched.”

“Her husband had a lover; why not Patty? Why is it so hard to believe?”

“Why would no one have noticed a car?”

“He might have parked on the state road and come through the path in the woods.”

And then Doris was home, let go from her job. Things became complicated. The lover showed up and was turned away.

I hear my husband’s breathing change. The sound of a cornered, panting animal. I imagine the shine of its eyes and the animal heads Patty talked about, their knowing.

“All right,” he says, up for the game, sliding forward in his chair. “Say there’s a love interest. Say he’s impatient. They argue. He forces his way in; they struggle.”

I can tell he’s upset. He tips his bourbon back and the ice slides around in his glass.

I remember that evening, standing on the lawn and listening to the ice in their glasses as we waited for the police to arrive, Patty’s body around back eventually covered with a plaid wool throw, her eyes open beneath it. I felt the baby flutter and placed my hand on my stomach. There, there, I thought. My husband was altered, his face gone white, his shoulders slumped, no longer the youthful, athletic figure I’d seen those last few weeks slipping through the woods, scaling the ladder. I’d called my mother to pick up Henry. I didn’t want him to witness what happened after—the police in and out of our house, the pots of coffee, the questions, the careful accounting of my day.

Tonight, we head to bed and beyond our bay window I can just make out the lights of the new subdivision. They tore down Patty’s house a few years ago. A developer bought the land and the woods and now it is an enclave of modern homes—all glass and stone and cantilevered rooflines. Houses built up into the woods where the Old Leatherman’s cave sits. Fields groomed into neat lawns.

My knees ache. My palms tingle.

I hear him stumble in the bedroom, banging his shin. I hear his soft groan as he settles on the bed, ever the impatient love interest, still mourning Patty. The past remains bottomless, a dark lake from which we drink. I have tricked him into imagining himself the murderer out of spite. All these years blaming Doris, and he is only partly right—Patty’s murder was a woman’s crime. The fork, the cord. The iron cord, not the toaster. A table fork first. These were the things at our daily disposal. Dish towel, oven mitt, apron, phone book, salt and pepper shakers, ashtray. Meat fork. We made our use of them as needed, need driving us to their use.