Nature vs. Nurture

By Carol Winters

Harriett Hemenway made the decision to become an artist during her freshman English Literature class.  She didn’t make the commitment out of a dislike for literature, quite the opposite actually, but it was her way of not tempting fate.  No one else would understand this, of course, and she never tried to explain.

Born Lisa Marie Hemenway, Harriett changed her name when she was sixteen.

Her mother, a big Elvis fan, would no doubt have named her after the star had she been a boy.  While Harriett’s mother kept “Blue Suede Shoes” on repeat day and night, her father hunched over the kitchen table creating crossword puzzles.  Constantly.  Submitting several to the New York Times every month, but never receiving a reply, Norman Hemenway was certain they lifted his best ideas and fit them into their own mediocre creations when at a loss.  Often Harriett would find him wide-awake in the middle of the night, hunched over the kitchen table, scribbling wildly as he tried to clear his mind of words.

… hearing about the family history of Ernest Hemingway,
she began to piece the puzzle together…

One day, while on a family outing to Poughkeepsie, a routine rest stop changed all of their lives.  There, her father picked up a small pad of crossword puzzles and suddenly it came to him.  By creating Hemenway’s Crossword Traveler, each book dedicated to a different state and its various tourist destinations, he triumphed and the crossword world toasted him as its king.  This meant the Hemenways could move out of the crowded duplex shared with the Morales family for over a decade.  Norman had made it and as long as there were vacations and cars and destinations far, far away, he would be a success, doing his part to make the trip a little more interesting and earning half a dollar for every book sold.

And then the market dropped out.  Handheld computer games became the rage.  No one was buying paper crossword puzzles any more.  More and more they became the stuff lining car trunks or tossed into roadside trash bins.  Distraught, Norman submitted his last effort to the New York Times, with eleven down, Tappan Zee Bridge, intersecting six across, jump.  Twelve-year old Harriett could never understand why someone would want such a soggy death.  Sitting outside the funeral parlor, her Aunt Suzette explained that with the loss of his business, her father’s genetic heritage took over and drove him to suicide.  Aunt Suzette revealed that his father, a frustrated poet, had died the same way, as had an unpublished novelist uncle.  Harriett accepted this as his fate and went on with her life.  It was only in that freshman literature class, upon hearing about the family history of Ernest Hemingway, did she sit up and begin to piece the puzzle together.  Hemenway.  Hemingway.  Could they be related?  Surely, anything was possible.  And if genes caused suicide, maybe it ran in both spellings of the family name.

Unknown to anyone else, faces and stories and vignettes had tormented Harriett more and more in recent months.  Full-length scripts appeared to her as easily as other people compiled grocery lists.  Frightened, she focused on her painting with more intensity than ever before.  She was not going to write.  Words had killed her father.  Words would not kill her.

In her freshman art class, Harriett often sat back and watched a boy across the room.  His long brown curls framed an almost perfect face.  One day he smiled and winked.  She averted her eyes the rest of the class but at the end, as she packed up her charcoals, he came to her.  They had coffee.  They went to a movie.  The next week they moved into an off-campus apartment together.  Harriett’s art hung on the walls and his guitar stood in the corner.  Their only furniture: a mattress.  Both knew love was all they needed.

Joshua Appleton appeared perfect in every way.  He was close to the parents who adopted him as an infant and with their encouragement had enrolled in college on the opposite coast to pursue not only his independence but also a degree in either Music History or Mechanical Engineering.  Finding Harriett made his life complete.  Or so he thought.

What Harriett didn’t know and what Joshua was too horrified to tell her, was that with his adoptive parent’s help, he had sought out the names of his biological parents.  He wanted to know what sort of family would just give up a healthy baby boy, who had they been, where had they come from.  Filled with questions, he would lay awake at night imagining these people, thinking of the white picket fence out in front of their house, knowing they were happy, good people who just for some reason lost track of their child.  He wasn’t ready for the truth.  While his classmates toured college campuses, Joshua and his parents toured orphanages throughout Missouri.  A lawyer, now deceased, arranged the adoption, providing only sparse details to the Appleton’s at the time.  Finally, they found the Holsom Infant and Child Home.  Hesitantly, but with an edge of excitement in his gut, Joshua approached the woman at the front desk.

He wanted to know what sort of family would just give up a healthy baby boy…

“I’ve come to inquire about my parents.  My biological parents.”  He glanced back at Jim and Vi Appleton who hovered in the background.

“Name and date of birth?”  The woman looked out over her reading glasses, her steel gray hair curled painfully tight.

“Joshua Appleton, July 18, 1983.”

The woman punched the information into a computer and waited as it buzzed and whirred.  Joshua glanced back at Jim and Vi, who gave him a thumbs-up sign.

“Ah, here it is.”  The woman reached for a Post-It and started writing.

Joshua’s heart pounded.

“You from these parts?”

“No, we live in Oregon.”  Joshua almost giggled.

“Well, that’s a good thing.  You wouldn’t want to be around these here parts with this family name.”

“You know my family’s name?  That’s so cool.”

“Stutton.”

“Stutton?  I’m Joshua Stutton?”

“No.  You were brought in as George Stutton.  The fourth.”

“I’m a fourth?”  This was getting better by the moment.  He didn’t turn around lest Jim and Vi read the excitement in his eyes.

“Unfortunately.”  The woman handed him the paper but then leaned over the desk and whispered, “Stutton is like a curse word around here.  Don’t tell anyone who you are, hear me?  You’ll regret it, I tell you.”

Shaken, Joshua accepted the Post-It, not certain that he wanted to read it.

“Why does everyone hate them?  Us?”  He asked before turning away.

“I shouldn’t tell you this but you’ll find out anyways.  You seem like a bright young man,” she glanced around, “They’re killers.  It runs in the family.  Three generations now, spread over three states, have killed young girls and then thrown them in the river.  As one goes to prison for life, the next generation takes over.  It’s like a sickness.”

Joshua clung to the desk for support.  He came from a family of murderers.  Maybe that explained why he was given up for adoption.  Apparently, no one was around to take care of him.

“What happened to my mother?”

“She was one of the young girls.”

Joshua gagged and collapsed onto the floor.  Jim and Vi ran to his side.

“I told you we shouldn’t do this before lunch.  Let’s get him back to the motel.  Maybe a swim will help.”

They lifted him by the arms.  Unable to speak, Joshua let himself be led to the car and was whisked away to the Riverview Motel where the family had taken a room for the night.

“I wish I knew what’s wrong with this boy.”  His mother whispered as Joshua curled up in a fetal position on the bed.

“What could she have said?  Was there something we didn’t know about his family?”

“The mother died in birth, that’s what they told me.  The father had taken off.  That’s all I remember.”

“He’s had quite a shock.”  They sat and watched him.  Eventually Joshua fell asleep and when he awoke several hours later, Jim and Vi were asleep too, curled in their usual spoon-hug, in the next bed.  He crept from the room and retrieved his laptop computer from the car.  He logged onto the Internet.  There couldn’t possibly be that many Stuttons in the area.  His search finally led him to the newspaper in St. Louis.  Exploring their archives for 1983, he discovered that two bodies were found floating in the river that fall.  Mr. George Stutton the third, had been convicted in the murders, including that of his young wife, and the fact that his own father and grandfather were in prison for similar crimes intrigued the news hungry community.

In the weeks to come, fearing that he possessed the genetic predisposition to kill, Joshua convinced Jim and Vi to let him attend a college as far away as possible.  They thought the social environment of a bustling dormitory might be just the inoculation he needed to pull out of his slump.  Therefore, a month later, when word of his arrangement with Harriet reached them, they worried but wanted to trust his judgment.  In his mind, Harriett was the answer.  If he lived for her, he wouldn’t succumb to his genes.

Every day when she awoke, Harriett opened her eyes, took her pulse, and did a silent evaluation of her mental state.

“Yes, I’m still here.  My heart rate is good.  And how do I feel?”  She’d pause to contemplate her life, “Yes, I feel good.  Life is good.”  Pleased that she had gotten through one more night without doing herself in, she rolled over, and tickled Joshua awake.  Unbeknownst to her, Joshua was taking his own inventory.

The first semester of college ended and three weeks of break awaited them.  To Jim and Vi’s disappointment, Joshua chose to stay in the east with Harriett.  Harriett’s mother would come for Christmas dinner with her newest boyfriend, yet another in a long line of Elvis impersonators.

Settling into a routine, Joshua played his guitar every afternoon while Harriett set up her easel by the window.  Often he looked up to find her staring off into space, her thoughts far away.  At first, Joshua assumed she was contemplating colors, or shading or form, but as the days passed and her progress grew slower, he realized she appeared to be blocked.

One day, he gave in and asked her, “Hey, Leeza, what’s up?  You’re not getting much done this week.”  Only the week before had she confided her birth name.

Harriet flew into a rage.  “I can’t paint.  I never could.”  Throwing down her brush, she stomped out of the room, afraid to tell Joshua the truth.  Voices, stories, motivations flooded her mind, intruded into her sleep, distracted her night and day.  She knew this happened to writers sometimes but refused to take pen to paper.  They were only words.  They would not dominate her life.  They would not kill her.

Day after day Joshua found Harriett crying, refusing to tell him the truth.  He grew angry at her distance, saddened that maybe their life wasn’t so perfect after all.

One day it hit him.  All she needed was some other form of expression to release her artistic muse once again.  He stopped at the campus bookstore, purchased a journal and a book on writing, and wrapped them up in a New York Times Review of Books.

Harriett took one look at the bundle, her eyes widening with horror, threw it to the floor and ran from the room.  Before Joshua could reach her, she was out the door, racing down the icy sidewalk.

Eighteen years of Vi’s admonishments made Joshua first grab his parka before racing after her.  “Harriett, wait, please.  I just wanted to give you something nice.”

Their apartment was only a block from the river.  Running down the street, Harriett charged up on the only bridge crossing at this end of town, slipping on the ice, grasping the railing.  Joshua paused to catch his breath before pursuing her.  His boots gave him more traction than did her clogs.  As he got closer, she glanced over into the icy waters below.

“Come on Harriett, it’s okay.  We can work it out.”  He begged, slowing down.

“I don’t think so.  I hate you, you’re evil.”

Joshua wondered how she knew his secret.  “Please don’t say that.”

“You are.  You want to kill me.  You think I should write.  If I write, I’ll die, it’s that simple.”

Her argument made no sense to Joshua.  “Maybe if you write, you’ll feel better.”

“No, no, no!”  Harriett covered her ears.

Joshua crept closer.  “Please, come on home, Harriett.  It’s cold here.  It’s creepy.”  He looked over into the slushy water below.  “I just don’t get it.  I don’t.  Maybe if you wrote, even if just for yourself, you’d feel better.  And maybe then you could paint.”

“The voices want me to write too.  I won’t do it.”

Joshua couldn’t fathom the extent of her torment.  “You hear voices?”

“They’re evil.  They kill.”

Joshua studied her.  “I don’t get it.”

“Words kill.”

“Words don’t kill.”

“They killed my father.  And grandfather.”

“I don’t…”

“It’s in my family.  We’re insane.  Words make us insane.”

Horrified, Joshua realized this explained their attraction.  “I’m insane too, Harriett, really.”

“Yea, right.  Don’t patronize me.”

“No, really.  I never told you.”

Harriett paused to look at him skeptically, but then struggled up on the railing, clinging to a support cable.  “Don’t come closer, Josh.  I mean it.”

“Harriett.  Get down.  You can’t mean it.  It’s not that bad, is it?”

“It’s worse.  They don’t let me sleep.  They interfere with my painting.  They follow me around.”

“Who does?”

“The people.  The people in my head.  They want out and I won’t let them.”

“Harriett, please.”  He took a step toward her.

“If you come closer, I’ll jump, Josh.”

“I thought you loved me.”

“I do.  I love you too much to put you through this.  You deserve someone better than an insane woman with people filling her head with talk all day.”

“Harriett, come on down.  I love you.  Please.”  He faked a step backwards and then lunged at her.

“No!”  Harriett shrieked, wavering only a second before plunging into the waters below.  Her scream echoed until all was silent.  Joshua leaned over the railing searching for her.  He ran to the end of the bridge, down the embankment, through old shopping carts, tripping over discarded tires, slipping on the ice.  There was no sign of Harriett.  Above, blue lights flashed as two police cars careened to a stop.  Their searchlights traced his movement on the bank.

A voice called, “Halt!”

Joshua tried to explain as they read him his rights.  It sounded ridiculous now.  Voices, words, genes.  Handcuffed, they dragged him into the station and asked him to repeat his name.  He paused for a moment and then replied, “Stutton.  George Stutton.”

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About Carol Winters

Carol Winters is a mother, writer, and college professor living in New England.  The characters in her novels and short stories are strictly fictional, but all reflect the multitude of interesting people she has met over the years, as well as her training in the field of psychology.  When not taking care of her family, gardens, or teaching, writing fiction, both novels and short stories, has become the most fulfilling of pastimes.

2 Comments

  1. Virginia K. Freed
    Posted June 2009 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    I loved this! Great confluence of irony with a hint of humor: specifically, I love the “Holsom” Infant and Child home and the image of the clog-shod Harriet running on the icy sidewalk! And the subtle twist at the end really works!

  2. Tyra Masters-Heinrichs
    Posted August 2009 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed reading this story. I loved the way the characters’ own fears ruled them and they thusly created their own fate. I liked the subtle humor through out the piece. In places the dialogue and transitions were a little choppy, but I put that down to word count cutting. The over all effect was a really positive story expierence.
    I’m a plot snob, so I love well written stories that have a beginning, middle and ending-especially one that satisfies the reader’s expectations. Though you see the ending coming, it read naturally. I hope Carol Winters continues to publish.

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