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Sam's Letters to Jennifer
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around June 28, 2004. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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MY TWO-BEDROOM apartment was in a prewar building in Wrigleyville. Danny and I had loved everything about it—the city views, proximity to the real Chicago, the way we'd furnished the place. I was spending more and more time there, "holed up," my good friends said. They also said I was "married to my job," "a basket case," "a hopeless workaholic," "the new spinster," and "romantically challenged"—to name just a few of their more memorable jibes. All of them, unfortunately, were true, and I could have added some others to the list.
I was trying not to think about what had happened, but it was hard. For several months after Danny's death I kept having this terrible, obsessive thought: I can't breathe without you, Danny.
Even after a year and a half I had to force myself not to think of the accident, and everything that happened after it.
I had finally begun to date—Teddy, a tall-drink-of-water editorial writer from the Trib; sportsaholic Mike, whom I met at a Cubs game; Corey, a blind date from the tenth circle of hell. I hated dating, but I needed to move on, right? I had a lot of good friends—couples, single women, a few guys who were just buddies. Really. Honest. I was doing okay, I told everybody, which was mostly crap, and my good friends knew it.
My best friends in the world, Kylie and Danny Borislow, were there for me again and again; I loved Kylie and Danny and I owe them so much.
So, anyhow, my deadline for that day's incredible, awe-inspiring column in the Tribune was three hours away and I was in a jam. I'd already tossed three ideas into the recycle bin and was staring at a blank screen again. The really tricky thing about writing a "witty" newspaper column is that between Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Dorothy Parker, everything worth saying has already been said, and said better than I could ever say it.
So I pushed myself up from the sofa, put some Ella Fitzgerald on the Bose, and dialed up the air conditioner to high cool. I took a sip of coffee from my Uncommon Ground take-out cup. Found it sooo-ooo good. There is always hope in small things.
Then I paced around the living room in my writer's outfit du jour: one of Danny's Michigan U. jogging suits and my lucky red writing socks. I was dragging on a Newport Light, the latest in a string of bad habits I'd picked up lately. Mike Royko once said that you're only as good as your last column, and that's the truth that dogs me. That and my anorexic twenty-nine-year-old editor, Debbie, a former London tabloid reporter who wears Versace everything and Prada everything else with her Morgenthal Frederics glasses.
The point is, I really care about the column. I work hard to be original, make the words sing on occasion, and get the work in on time, without fail.
So I hadn't answered the phone that had been ringing on and off for hours. I had cursed at it a couple of times, though.
It's hard to be fresh three times a week, fifty weeks a year, but, of course, that's the job the Trib pays me to do. And in my case, the job is also pretty much my life.
Funny, then, how many readers write to say that my life is so glamorous, they'd like to swap places—wait, was that an idea?
The sudden crash behind my head was Sox, my year-old mostly tabby cat, knocking The Devil in the White City down from a bookshelf. That startled Euphoria, who'd been snoozing on the very typewriter F. Scott Fitzgerald supposedly wrote Tender Is the Night on. Or something like that. Maybe Zelda wrote Save Me the Last Waltz on it?
And when the phone rang again, I grabbed it.
When I realized who was on the line, a shock ran through me. I called up an old picture of John Farley, a family friend from Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. The minister's voice cracked when he said hello and I had the strange sensation that he was crying.
"It's Sam," he said.
I GRIPPED the phone receiver tightly with both hands. "What's wrong?"
I heard him suck in a breath before he spoke again. "Ah, there's no good way to tell you this, Jennifer. Your grandmother has taken a fall," he told me. "It's not good."
"Oh, no!" I said, and sent my thoughts out to Lake Geneva, a resort community about an hour and a half north of Chicago. Lake Geneva was where I'd spent most of the summers of my childhood, some of the best times of my life.
"She was all alone in the house, so no one knows for sure what happened," he continued. "Just that she's in a coma. Can you come up to the lake, Jennifer?"
The news was a jolt. I'd just spoken to Sam two days before. We'd joked about my love life and she'd threatened to send me a box of anatomically approximate gingerbread men. Sam is a comedian, always has been.
It took me all of five minutes to change my clothes and throw a few things into a duffel bag. It took me a little longer than that to catch and cage Euphoria and Sox for an unexpected journey.
Then I was gunning the old Jag up Addison Street, heading toward I-94 North. The '96 Jaguar Vanden Plas is a midnight blue sedan that was our pride and joy, Danny's and mine. It's a handsome thing with a quirky detail; the car has dual gas tanks.
I was trying to think about everything but Sam. My grandmother was the only one I had left now, the only family.
Sam was my best friend after my mother died when I was twelve. Her own marriage to Grandpa Charles made me and everyone else want whatever it was that they had. My grandfather wasn't the easiest guy to get to know, but once you broke through to him, he was great. Danny and I had toasted and roasted them at their fiftieth-anniversary gala at the Drake. Two hundred friends stood to applaud when my seventy-one-year-old grandfather dipped Sam low and kissed her passionately on the dance floor.
When Grandpa Charles retired from his legal practice, he and Sam stayed at Lake Geneva more than in Chicago. After a while, they didn't get so many visitors. Even fewer came after my grandfather died four years ago and she moved to the lake full-time. When that happened, people said that Sam would die soon, too.
But she didn't. She'd been doing fine—until now.
At about 8:15 I got on Route 50 West and took it to 12, a local two-laner that skirts Lake Geneva—the BPOE, "best place on earth." After three miles, I turned off 12 onto Route NN. Lakeland Medical Center was just a couple of minutes away and I tried to prepare myself.
"We're close, Sam," I whispered.
REALLY BAD THINGS happen in threes, I was thinking as I arrived at the Lakeland Medical Center. Then I tried to banish the thought from my mind. Don't go there, Jennifer.
I got out of the car and started uphill to the main entrance. I remembered that many years before, I had been there to have a fishing hook removed from just above my eyebrow. I was seven at the time, and it was Sam who brought me.
Once I was inside, I tried to get my bearings, taking in the horseshoe-shaped ICU with patients' rooms on three sides. The head nurse, a thin, fortyish woman with pink-framed glasses, pointed out my grandmother's room. "We're so glad you're here," she said. "I enjoy your column, by the way. We all do."
"Thank you," I said, and smiled. "You're very kind. That's nice to hear."
I walked quickly down the corridor to Sam's room. I slid the door open and entered. "Oh, Sam," I whispered the second I saw her. "What happened to you?"
It was so awful to see the tubes in her arms and the banks of beeping medical equipment. But at least Sam was alive. Though she looked diminished and gray, and as fragile as a dream.
"It's Jennifer," I whispered. "I'm here now. I'm right here." I took her hand in mine. "I know you can hear me. I'll do the talking for now. I'm going to keep talking until you open your eyes."
After a few minutes, I heard the door slide open behind me. I turned to see the Reverend John Farley. His thick white hair was askew, his smile tremulous. He was still a handsome man, though stooped now. "Hello, Jennifer," he whispered, and welcomed me with a warm hug.
We walked out into the hallway and suddenly I was remembering how close he had been to my grandparents.
"It's so good to see you. What have you heard about Sam?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Well, she hasn't opened her eyes, and that's not a good sign, Jennifer. I'm sure Dr. Weisberg will have more to tell you tomorrow. I've been here most of the day, ever since I heard."
Then he handed me a key. "This is for you. Your grandmother's house."
He hugged me again, whispering that he had to get some sleep before he wound up there as a patient. Then he left and I slipped back into Sam's room. I still couldn't believe this had happened.
She had always been so strong, almost never sick, always the one who took care of everybody else—especially me. I sat for a long while just listening to her breathe, looking at her beautiful face, remembering all the times I'd come to Lake Geneva. Sam had always reminded me a little of Katharine Hepburn, and we'd seen all her movies together, though she vehemently denied there was any resemblance.
I felt so scared. How could I lose Sam now? It seemed as if I had just lost Danny. Tears began to stream down my cheeks again. "Shit," I whispered under my breath.
I waited until I got back some control and then I moved close to her. I kissed both of her cheeks and stared at her face. I kept expecting Sam's eyes to open, for her to speak. But she didn't. Oh, why was this happening?
"I'm going back to the house. Pancakes for breakfast," I whispered. "I'll see you in the morning. You hear me? I'll see you in the morning. First thing, bright and early."
One of my tears fell onto Sam's cheek, but it just trickled down her face.
"Good night, Sam," I said.
I HAVE LITTLE or no memory of the drive from Lakeland Medical to Knollwood Road on Lake Geneva. I was just suddenly there at my grandmother's house, and it felt incredibly familiar and safe.
A century of parked cars had worn away the grass under an ancient oak in the side yard, and that's where I brought the Jag to a stop. I shut off the ignition and just sat for a minute or two, hoping to gather myself before I went inside.
To my left, the lawn flowed downhill to the shoreline. I could see the long white dock jutting out onto the moonlit and glassy surface of Lake Geneva. The water was a mirror for the star-pricked sky.
To my right was the old white clapboard lake house, porches all around, rising up to two asymmetrical stories of added-on dormered rooms. My grandparents' home sweet home. I knew every curve and angle of the house and the view from every porch and window.
I released my seat belt and stepped out of the car into the humid summer air. And that was when the fragrance of the casa blanca lilies hit me. They were Sam's and my favorites—the prize of the garden, where we had spent many a night sitting on the stone bench, smelling the flowers, gazing up at the sky.
It was here that she'd tell me stories about Lake Geneva—how it freezes east to west, how when they were digging ground for the golf course at Geneva National they unearthed a cemetery.
Sam had stories about everything, and no one told them the way she could. This was where I became a writer. Right here at this house, and Sam was my inspiration.
I was suddenly overwhelmed. Tears I'd been holding in broke free. I dropped down to my knees on the hardpan parking area. I whispered Sam's name. I had the terrible thought that she might not ever come back to this house. I couldn't stand it.
I had always thought of myself as strong—and now this. Somebody was trying to break me. Well, it wasn't going to happen.
I don't know how long I stayed there in the parking area. Eventually I stood, opened the trunk, shouldered my duffel bag, and started inside with the cats. They were vocalizing from their cages and I was about to liberate them when I saw a light go on in a house a hundred yards or so down the shoreline. A second later the light winked out.
I got the feeling that somebody was watching me. But who knew I was there?
Not even Sam.
SAM'S HOUSE was my favorite place in the world, the sanest, and always the safest—until tonight anyway.
Now everything seemed off-kilter. The kitchen was dark, so I threw on the light switch. Then I put down the cats and opened their cage doors.
The girls sprang forward like little racehorses out of the gate. Sox is three-quarters alley cat, one-quarter loudmouth Siamese. Euphoria is an all-white longhair with green eyes and a smoochy nature. My hands were still shaking from stress as I fed the two of them.
Then I walked from room to room, and it all looked exactly the same.
An old burnished hardwood floor secured with square-headed nails. A chaotic mass of houseplants crowding the bay window in the dining room. An astonishing view of the lake. Books spread everywhere. Bel Canto. Queen Noor's memoir. A Short History of Nearly Everything.
And the artifacts that Sam and I loved: antique ice tongs from the days when blocks of ice were shipped by horse teams to Milwaukee and Chicago; old snowshoes; paintings of the round pink crab apple trees along the lake and of the old train depot.
I heaved a big sigh. This really was home to me, more than anywhere else, especially now that Danny was gone from our apartment in Chicago.
I took my duffel bag upstairs to "my room," with its views down onto the lake.
I was about to drop the bag on the vanity table when I saw that it was already occupied.
What is this?
There were a dozen banded packets of envelopes, probably a hundred envelopes in all, maybe more. Each was numbered and addressed to me.
My heart started thudding as I guessed about the letters. For years, I had been asking Sam to tell me her story. I wanted to hear it, and record it for my own children to hear. And now here it was. Had she known what was going to happen to her? Had she been feeling sick?
I didn't bother to undress. I just slid into the soft folds of bedcovers and took a stack of the letters into my lap.
I stared at my name written in blue-inked script. Sam's familiar handwriting. Then I turned over the first envelope and carefully peeled open the flap.
The letter inside was written on beautiful white linen paper.
I took a deep breath, and noticed I was trembling as I began to read.
You've just left after our most recent "girls" weekend together and my heart is full of you. Actually, I decided to write this when we were saying good-bye at the car. It just came to me.
I was looking into your eyes and I was struck by a feeling so hard that it physically hurt. I thought about how close we are, always have been, and how it would be a shame, almost a betrayal of our friendship, if I didn't tell you some things about my life.
So I've made a decision, Jen, to tell you secrets that I've never told anyone before.
Some are good; a few you might find, well, I guess shocking is the word I'm looking for.
I'm in your room right now, looking out at our lake, drinking a mug of that heady spearmint tea we both like, and it makes me happy to think of you reading my letters a few at a time, just the way I'm writing them. I can see your face as I write this, Jennifer. I can see your lovely smile.
Right now, I'm thinking about love: the hot, crazy kind that turns your chest into a bell and your heart into a clapper. But also the more enduring kind that comes from knowing someone else deeply and letting yourself be known. What you had with Danny.
I guess I believe in both kinds of love, both kinds at the same time and with the same person.
By now you're probably wondering why I'm going on about love. You're twirling your hair around your finger, aren't you?
Aren't you, Jennifer?
I want, I need, to talk to you about your grandfather and me, sweetheart. So here goes.
The truth is, I never really loved Charles.
Now that I've written that difficult sentence, and you had to read it . . .
Please take a good look at the old black-and-white photo I've clipped to this letter. It was taken the day the direction of my life changed forever.
I remember it was a humid morning in July. I know it was humid because my hair had sprung into those stupid Shirley Temple curls that I just hated at the time. See the apothecary jars inside the plate-glass window behind me? I'm standing in front of Dad's pharmacy, squinting in the sun. My dress is blue and a little faded. Note my hands-on-hips stance and the self-possessed grin. That's who I was. Confident. A little forward. Naive. Full of potential to be anything I wanted to be. Or so I believed.
Here's what I was thinking at that very moment.
My mother had died some years before and I was managing the store that summer. But the next year I was going to leave Lake Geneva, go to the University of Chicago, and eventually become a doctor. That's right, I planned to be an obstetrician. And I was proud of myself for working hard to make it come true.
After this picture was taken, I followed my father back into the dimly lit and narrow store. I swept the wooden floor with Dust Down compound and set the daily newspapers out on the radiator near the door.
I was sponging down the marble counter at the soda fountain when the door opened and slammed shut with a sharp bang.
It would be accurate to say that my whole life changed right there, with that bang!
I looked up, scowling, and my eyes locked with those of a most handsome young man. I noticed everything about him in a flash: that he was limping, and I wondered why; that he was dressed in expensive clothes, which probably meant he was a lakeshore person, a summer visitor; that he looked at me hard—bang—like a shot to the heart.
- On Sale
- Jun 28, 2004
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Little, Brown and Company