She began writing to Peabody after his conviction that winter for attempted armed robbery. The jury went outside and stood in the slush of the parking lot for a collective cigarette and then was back in the box. That was how long it seemed to take. The jury foreman said, “Guilty,” and Judge Harold M. Peterson handed twenty-year-old Peabody twenty to forty.
She began writing the day he was walked from the county jail to the state-owned white van with the crosshatched wire windows, his wrists cuffed and chained to his hobbled ankles.
She began writing to him as the white van drove across central Wisconsin, the winter landscape purgatorial, to the state correctional facility at Waupun.
She began writing as she thought a former classmate would, offering encouragement to someone she had graduated from high school with two years before. Without understanding it herself, the letter writing was her expiation.
She began writing because she remembered him so well from Pokegama Junction High School. Did he remember her when he met her that night last summer at Donny’s Gas and Liquor Mart off Highway 8?
She began writing that she regretted having told him that night last summer that she remembered him so well. It was a weakness, that heart on her sleeve.
It threw him off his game, his plan fell apart, when this stocky, sandy-haired girl, Joy, Peabody didn’t remember her name if he’d ever known it all, said, “I know you. You’re Ricky Peabody. Take that mask off. No one wears a ski mask in July, silly.” She gave a horsey laugh. “Take it off.” And as Peabody pulled the ski mask from his head, the tangle of sweat-soaked hair flattened to the curve of his skull, she picked up the telephone.
“I was just joking around.” He pulled his hand from his jacket pocket. “See? I don’t even have a gun. I don’t own a pistol.” Peabody still did not recognize her.
“Hi? This is Joy at Donny’s, out on 8? I’ve got Ricky Peabody here at the checkout counter and he just tried to rob us. Uh-huh. Yeah, I’ll keep him here.”
She began writing, It must have been unreal to you, meeting me at that time and place, two years after high school, everyone having gone their own way, college or tech school or remaining in town, working like me or drifting like you.
Peabody remembered her at the trial, the short, homely girl from high school, always on her own and watching him. He had blown her off. He had trouble enough skittering through that teenage arcade. Now here she was, testifying against him, still more of an outsider than he would ever be.
There was never any doubt that his conviction would hinge on her testimony. Peabody’s toweringly ursine attorney from Duluth, Schwindeman, could not shake her from the details of that night last summer.
“No, Mr. Schwindeman, he wasn’t joking. He said he was joking when he found out that I knew who he was. But, no, there was no way he was joking.”
His initial efforts to respond to her from the Waupun Correctional Institution caromed off his parietal, occipital and frontal bones in no fixed rhythm as he exercised in the prison yard, but those words, they remained in his head. He wanted whatever he finally sent to her to be polished, each word like an agate churned from the largest freshwater lake in the world, beautiful, cold and hard and layered to a depth she could not fathom.
When Peabody put words to paper, he told her that if she felt bad, she shouldn’t. This was all for the best, giving him time to think, to re-evaluate. In his cell, in the prison yard, in the cafeteria, in the prison laundry, Peabody evaluates and re-evaluates the many simple facets of the first twenty years of his life spent in Pokegama Junction. It eats him up.
She writes back, he responds, the call and response as from a strange old, half-forgotten American folk song that grows in her imagination to a crescendo until he asks for her hand. And Joy accepts his proposal.
He writes to her. She reads the words, I ache for the time when we can truly be together, and she believes in each and every one of them.