Christmas in Iverhill: Sleeping with Gretchen Peters

NOTE: To read Chuck Miller’s book “The Robins of Iverhill: A Minor League Fairy Tale,” as well as the short stories in the “Christmas in Iverhill” series, visit this link.

Thursday, December 20th, 1973.

If Frank Osterman hadn’t arrived at Iverhill’s only late-night tavern, the 9N Bar and Grille, he might not have even volunteered for this delivery.  Or was conscripted for the delivery.  He wasn’t sure if there was a true delineation.

“You gotta do me a favor,” the bartender said as Frank approached the counter.


“See that girl over there?” the bartender said, pointing to Gretchen.  “She needs to go home.”

“Thanks, man, but I’m not interested in a date tonight.”

“No,” said the bartender.  “She came her with a friend of hers, the friend left with some guy and she’s been drinking here for the past couple of hours.  She needs a ride home.”

“Oh, come on, I just got here.  I had a hard day at Magedoma Lumber and I need to take the edge off.  Can’t we call her a cab or something?”

“Look,” the bartender replied.  “You know her dad?  Peters, the foreman over at Magedoma?”

“I know him.  I work in another department at Magedoma, but I know who he is.”

“She’s old enough to  be in this bar, but to her dad she’s still his little angel.  And he’s a good friend of mine.  And I’d like to keep that friendship, if you know what I mean.”

“Volunteered” was a weak word for this situation – the tavern owner had lost track of how many shots the sandy-haired blonde had consumed.  Or at least the number of drinks she purchased, as opposed to how many beverages were purchased for her by guys who hoped that one extra shot would mean a night of magic.

Frank sat at the bar stool, knowing in his heart he’d only be resting on the stool for a short moment.  “I guess it’s always like this.  Okay, I’m listening.”

The bartender reached for a napkin.  “This is her address,” he said, scribbling on the napkin with a barely sharpened pencil.  “Down in the Valley.  Make sure she gets home safely.  She gets home safely – without any problems – next time you come in here, your drinks are on the house.”

“Even the good stuff?” Frank asked, pointing to the row of leaden-glass bottles against the mirrored bar wall.

“Yeah.  Even those.  Just get her home right now.”

Frank looked over to the inebriated patron.  And of all the people in Iverhill, of all the people in Otswego County, the person he had to chauffeur home – was Gretchen Peters.

As the bartender motioned to Gretchen, letting her know that it was “last call” for her, Frank thought about what this meant.  And indeed it meant everything to him – but for all the wrong reasons.

A few years ago, back when Frank was in high school, Gretchen Peters was his high-school crush.  He dreamed of the many dates he thought they would have, he dreamed of the starlit nights and the burnt-orange sunrises they spent together in his imagination.  All the wonderful moments – watching baseball games at Wilson Field, maybe a hockey game or two at the Iverhill Arena, ice cream and cheeseburgers at DiGi’s Diner, while the jukebox at DiGi’s played romantic song after romantic song.

But Gretchen had eyes for other people in school.  Mostly football running back Joey Hennessey, and how Gretchen wanted Joey to break up with that softball pitcher student-athlete Jenny McCarling.  Frank tried to talk to Gretchen, offered to help her with her homework, even offered to DO her homework, if that was what it took for her to notice him.  Nope.  It was all for  Joey Hennessey.  Frank never understood why – since Joey Hennessey could barely count to ten, let alone run for ten yards.  It was almost as if Gretchen wanted what she couldn’t have – just like Frank wanted what he couldn’t acquire.

Frank went to the 9N Bar and Grille parking lot, and started cleaning out his car.  Normally he didn’t have guests in the old Plymouth rustbucket, and as he tossed away some Lucky Strike wrappers from the passenger seat, he thought about whether this would be the opportunity he had always fantasized about.  Whether Gretchen would, after all these years, finally acknowledge that he was the one person that could have made her happy.  At least better than Joey Hennessey, who she later married right out of high school.  It’s not like he thought about her every day, but he never turned down any information that came his way.

He walked back into the bar.  “Gretchen?” he asked.  “I’m here to take you home.”

The sandy-haired blonde looked at the empty glass at the bar.  It might have been her second shot of hard liquor.  Maybe it was her third.  The bartender motioned to her with a “it’s time to go home now” gesture.

Gretchen slowly nodded.  Then she pointed at the glass.  The bartender shook his head.  No more for you.

Frank walked over to the bar rail and took Gretchen’s coat and purse in his hands.  Placing the purse on the bar, he draped Gretchen’s coat over her shoulders, and then gathered her – and her purse – and walked toward the bar door.  Gretchen said nothing.

Passenger side door first.  He guided his passenger into the car, taking care to not bump her head against the door frame, or to close the door on her delicate fingers.  As he walked around the car to the driver’s side, the snow was falling wet and fast.  Frank knew what that meant in Iverhill.  Drive only if you have to.  If you don’t have to, then stay home.

Frank started his car.  All he had to do was drive five miles to the Otswego Valley, and Gretchen would be home safe.

“So how have you been, Gretchen?” he asked as the car pulled out of the 9N Bar and Grille parking lot.

No response.  Frank glimpsed over at his passenger.  Gretchen was staring out the passenger window, her gaze transfixed on the streetlights along the state route.

Okay, Frank thought, if you don’t want to talk, you don’t have to.  He turned on the radio.  It was dialed to WIVR-AM, and disc jockey Shauna Moire’s mixture of Christmas records with Top 40 music pulsed through the car speakers.

“Last time I saw you, we were graduating from Iverhill High School.  You and me and Joey Hennessey and Jenny McCarling and …”

Frank waited for an answer.  Nothing.  He thought that he would get a response from mentioning Gretchen’s boyfriend.  Or at least a wince from uttering the name of Gretchen’s nemesis.  Not even a blink – even though everybody in high school remembered about how Gretchen Peters and Jenny McCarling got into an epic fight.  Maybe it had to do with Gretchen stealing Jenny’s boyfriend on Prom Night, or two days later when Jenny poured a couple of bottles of ginger ale in Gretchen’s bookbag in retaliation.

The snow made travel along the Valley road treacherous and slippery, but Frank always took care of his car.  He had to keep his eye on the road sign for the Otswego Valley – if he missed the turn, there was no other way to reach the Valley without driving two more miles and turning the car around at the municipal center parking lot.

There it is.  The sign for the Otswego Valley, access road a quarter of a mile on the right.  “Boy,” he replied, “you sure live a long ways away from 9N Bar and Grille.  Good thing you didn’t drive here in this weather.”

And then Frank realized – if Gretchen didn’t drive to 9N, how did she get there?  The bartender mentioned something about her arriving with a friend, but that the friend left with someone else, leaving Gretchen stranded at the tavern.  Some friend, Frank thought to himself.  And now I have to be the courier because Gretchen’s friend abandoned her.

No time to think about that now.  The road to the Otswego Valley was winding and slippery; not exactly the most favorable road in Otswego County.  And the snowstorm two days ago that closed the roads and the schools meant that the few plowed roads in Iverhill were already treacherous.  Frank kept both hands on the steering wheel and both eyes on the road.  Landing in a ditch along this road could mean big trouble.

Ten minutes of careful driving later, Frank arrived at a small mobile home at the bottom of the road.  He checked the house number, which was carefully printed on the sidewalk mailbox.  37 Green Douglas Fir Road.  HENNESSEY covered up in black electrical tape.  Another strip of electrical tape held up a tattered piece of paper, the word “Peters,” in longhand, as the new surname identifier.  The address was correct.

“Okay, Gretchen, time to go home.  Good night.”

Gretchen didn’t move.  She was asleep.

Frank nudged her.  She softly purred, moved her hand as if to brush him away, and then snuggled back to sleep.

“Come on, Gretchen, I gotta be at work tomorrow and it’s late.”

He got out of the car, walked around to the passenger’s side, and unlocked the door.  If I have to be a gentleman, he thought, at least this is a good reason for it.  He opened the car door.  Gretchen was asleep.

He tried to lift her out of the car.   But for some reason, he couldn’t budge her.  She may have weighed what, 90, 100 pounds – but that night, he couldn’t raise her out of the car if he had a forklift.

He rubbed her shoulders, tapped her hands, tried to rustle her.  He listened to make sure she wasn’t dead.  She was still breathing.  Great, Frank thought to himself.  She’s sleeping it off.  And I can’t even get her to the front door of her place.

He carefully closed the passenger door, and went back to the driver’s side of the car.  Before he climbed back in, Frank looked at the sky.  The glittery swirl of snowflakes cascading from the inky heavens.  The chilly ice whispers that landed on his cheeks and eyelashes.

And as he climbed back in the car, Frank looked over at Gretchen.  She was still asleep.  Frank could see movement in her eyelids, as if her eyes were darting around, looking for something in her dream state.

The car was getting cold.  Frank took his overcoat off and draped it over Gretchen’s sleepy shoulders.  If one of them had to remain warm, Frank figured, let it be her.  After covering Gretchen with the coat, Frank turned so that his body was facing the driver’s side door.  A quick flip of the side handle on the car seat, and the seat back reclined.

Oh well, Frank mused.  If she won’t get out of the car, then I’m not going to let her freeze inside the car.  He started the engine.  Warm air wafted through the car vents.  Five minutes idling the car should provide twenty, twenty-five minutes of heat inside the car, Frank calculated.  At least until she wakes up.

“I guess it’s always like this,” he mumbled wistfully.

Five minutes later, he turned the car off.  He looked over at Gretchen.  Somehow, in her sleep, Gretchen had wrapped Frank’s overcoat around her, snuggling in its warmth.  Good, Frank mused.  At least she’ll stay warm.  I’ll take the cold if it means she stays warm.

He stared through the windshield.  Is this some sort of punishment, he thought to himself.  Some tantalizing, unobtainable moment.  It’s as if everything he had ever dreamed about was right there, ripe for the taking – and his conscience wouldn’t even let him come close.

And then he glanced at Gretchen.  Still sleeping.

“I hope you’re happy,” Frank whispered.  “I have no idea why I’m doing this.  Why I’m even bothering.”

Gretchen snored softly.

“Everything I ever did for you in high school, everything I ever wanted… and you never even responded.  Just like now.  And all that matters is that you get home safe.  And of all the people who could have done it for you, it was me.  Me.  Frank Osterman…”

Frank’s voice drifted for a moment.  “And you never appreciated anything I did.  Do you know how that made me feel?  Useless.  Helpless, hopeless and useless.  And now, the one time you need someone, you need a person to help you be safe… and it’s my chance to prove I was the right guy for you all along.  Me.  Not Joey Hennessey or anybody else.  And you have absolutely no idea it’s me.  You’re going to wake up tomorrow and the only thing you’re  going to remember is that you drank too much.  And as long as you’re in your bed, safe and sound, you don’t care how you got there, just that you DID get there.”

Instinctively, Frank reached toward the glove compartment, where he kept a pack of cigarettes.  But in trying to make herself more comfortable, Gretchen turned her body so that her knee was pressed up against the glove box.  Frank couldn’t get at the cigarettes without bumping Gretchen’s leg out of the way.  Frank grimaced.  Appeasing the nicotine fit would have to wait.

“It doesn’t matter anyway,” he grumbled.  “I guess I’ll always be the nice guy when stuff like this happens.”

The car was warm enough.  Frank closed his eyes and took a short nap.

Ten minutes went by.

Another ten.

Frank woke up.  He looked over.  Gretchen was still sleeping.

“You know what?” he said softly.  “I don’t even know why I’m doing this.  Maybe I’m just ‘Mister Nice Guy,’ that I would do this out of the kindness of my heart.  I thought that maybe there was a reward – I could be your shining knight when you were in danger, I could be the one that protects you when things go wrong.  But you don’t need a shining knight.  You don’t need a savior.”

Frank looked down at the steering wheel.  “And you sure as hell don’t need me.”

He turned the car on.  The Plymouth roared to life.  The heating vents filled the car with warm air.

“I suppose I can’t go back to high school and change anything.  Maybe it was just never meant to be.  Maybe I never deserved you and I should never have entered your life.  And even today, there’s no reason for me to think that doing something like this would ever make your life any better or worse.  All I am is just a pilot, delivering passengers to a destination.  Nobody ever thanks the pilot for safe travels.”

Gretchen slowly stirred.


She rolled over, turning her back to Frank.

Frank turned off the car.

He thought about writing a note to Gretchen – maybe scribbling it on the wrapper of one of his Lucky Strike packs.  Once she sobers up, and actually puts her hand in her coat pocket, she might see the note and realize who drove her home from the tavern.

But he had no idea what to say, or how to say it.  Or even if such a message was appropriate.

Frank got out of the car again, and walked over to Gretchen’s passenger door.  Opening the door, he decided to try one more time to get his sleepy passenger out of the car.  Sliding his arms under her back and legs, Frank slowly lifted Gretchen from her seat.  He carried her to the front porch, and then propped her up on her feet.

Searching in her purse, he found her house keys.  Unlocking the front door, Frank walked Gretchen over to her living room couch.  He helped Gretchen to the couch, carefully letting her sit down – and then slowly guiding her so that her body lay flat, as if the couch was a guest bed.  He then placed Gretchen’s purse and house keys on an end table.

“Well, good night, Gretchen,” Frank whispered.  “I’m sorry I couldn’t be your hero.  Or maybe you just don’t need one any more.”

With that, Frank left Gretchen’s home, making sure the front door locked behind him.  A few moments later, the Plymouth was in motion, as Frank navigated the twisting Otswego Valley access road back to Iverhill.

The sun streamed through the gauzy draperies in Gretchen’s apartment.  Tingly sunrays splashed against Gretchen’s sleepy face, as she slowly woke up.

She looked around.  Her head hurt.  Must have been the last drink at 9N Bar and Grille, she thought to herself.  Or maybe the one before that.  Although she couldn’t remember what happened, or how it happened, she got home safely.  Maybe the bartender called a cab for her.  Good.  Better than riding home with a complete stranger.  Who knows what could have happened then.

Her telephone rang.  She clumsily gripped the phone receiver.

“Hello?” she mumbled.  “Joey, is that you? – Oh… hi Mom.  Yeah, I’m okay.  I went out last night with Sharon, and I can’t remember much, but I think she drove me home.  So I’ve got a headache today.  No, no, I do want to talk to you.  No Mom, the phone rang and I thought you were Joey.  What a great piece of timing, right Mom?  The son of a bitch left me two weeks ago, and he still hasn’t called me.  Yeah, that’s the word I would use to describe him, too.  Well, thanks for calling, Mom.  Tell Daddy I said hi.  Love you both.  Merry Christmas.  I’ll see you in a few days.  Goodbye.”

She hung up the phone and walked over to the curtains, opening up the draperies and filling her living room with December sunshine.  “Frank Osterman would have never treated me the way Joey did … I guess it’s always like this,” she mumbled wistfully.