*** I haven't written fiction (and shown it to anyone) for a really, really, really, really long time. This is a bit of a leap for me. The Unsinkable Jennifer. ***
Last year, when the Clatterbuck boy broke his neck playing football up at the high school, a group of neighbors clustered like grapes at the end of the sidewalk up to his house. They stayed there long after word had come that he’d reached the hospital and was in stable enough condition. They stayed after dark, long past supper time. The houses all along both sides of the street dark, as if everyone had gone on vacation at the same time. The whole neighborhood looked vacant. Except the Clatterbuck’s yard.
Children, too far past hunger to care, too close to bedtime to alert their parents to they’d missed dinner, whooped and whirled across the grass, jumping the landscaping and making a mess of Mandy Clatterbuck’s carefully sculpted boxwood borders. Every once in awhile, a reeling child would pierce the din of parental concern and the trespasser would be chastised before rejoining the melee.
The next morning, it looked like a miniature cyclone, not four feet tall, had gone through Mandy’s yard and her yard only. God’s eye is sharp, his aim precise.
I don’t imagine she cared. She was scarcely there for months, while Kyle recovered. It was slow going. There was lots of therapy, but Mandy is one of those people who manages life with grace no matter what is tossed at her. Be it poison ivy or personal catastrophe, she’d breeze through with a picnic and a remedy in her pocket she just happened to pick up the other day somewhere or other. Her mother was like that too. Stalwart. Dependable. As if they were goods ordered from the L.L. Bean catalogue. It was her mother that took over her house and straightened her hedges while Mandy was away. She held birthday parties for the youngers and school-shopped for the elders. One Saturday, she reglazed all the windows on the front of the house. I imagine she did the others, as well, but I can’t say. For the rest of it, my view was obstructed.
I never will forget that night, when catastrophe turned convivial in the Clatterbuck’s driveway. My daughter wanted to go out and play with the other children, but I wouldn’t let her. I found it ghoulish. I couldn’t imagine an event more suited for quiet. Here a child had been horribly injured, helicoptered to a hospital 100 miles away, and it was time for a weenie roast in absentia in the child’s driveway. We didn’t know yet if the child lived or died. It was like the accident was a light bulb, suddenly illuminating the darkness, and the neighbors, like moths, just caught the glint of it in the distance and rushed, in plaid shorts and halter dresses, to jump in the fray.
My husband rolled his eyes at my refusal and scooped our daughter up, all sticky with popsicle, and piggybacked her over there. He didn’t see the problem. But he grew up here. In this very house. My son, he stayed with me and watched from the window.
But I’m alone here now, watching. And this time the gathering is assembled at the terminus of my own driveway. And my husband and daughter are out among them again. My daughter has lost one of her pigtails, so she looks quite wild. Somewhere, I have an impulse to try to catch her to fix it. Somewhere, I see it as beautiful and begin to smile. Somewhere, I am irritated she always manages to lose one of each matching pair of everything. Sandals. Hair bows. Socks. Somewhere, I know I stashed another pack of cigarettes back before I pretended to quit and I want to go search them out between the towels or among the sheets, but I can’t go just now.
When I was a child, my grandmother’s linen cabinet was my favorite place in the world. I don’t remember how I figured out I fit in there, probably playing hide and seek, but once I found it, I never left my grandmother’s house without stealing away to hide in there. The cool cotton beneath my cheek. The smell of laundry soap and lavender and sun. One time, I fell asleep. I don’t know how long I was gone. But I woke up to an empty house and the far-off sound of someone calling my name.
It was my mother. And then my father. And then farther still, my grandparents. All from different directions and I didn’t know which way to go. It was evening and the barn swallows were cutting their precise paths through the air, grabbing up mosquitoes. And the bats appeared, with their leather wings trailing the surface of the pond down past the barn.
I was sitting on the porch when my uncle’s truck pulled up and my mother, whose face was quite wide, but whose features were arranged right in the very center of it, looked stricken, much more so than usual. I often wondered what happened, with such a large canvas, why God would choose to paint her features so close together they almost seemed to lay one atop the other.
But it was all okay because I was there. And quickly she smiled and grabbed me far too tightly and took me in the kitchen and made me cinnamon toast and told me all about how they thought I was missing, how I’d been gone such a long, long time. How Uncle Johnny was sure I’d gone down to see about the rabbits and how they waited on the porch for more than an hour and she kept saying, “Johnny, we’ve got to go see about her. She’s been gone too long.” But how nobody really got worried until Mamaw got worried. And then everybody set about to look.
But I have looked now in every cabinet and every drawer and under every bed and I cannot find my son. He is not in the basement or the attic and darkness is hanging around the corners of the doors and I still cannot find him. No one has seen him, anywhere. And my husband, travelling the neighborhood, calling his name, has acted as the beacon to the end of my driveway. And as every new gadfly appears, I know that is one more place my son is not.
We have summoned the police. We have given them recent photographs. We have watched their cars, sleek as sharks, slide through the streets on either side of our house. And I am not Mandy Clatterbuck. I have no magic picnic baskets or mail-order potions. I am horribly irregular. I’m not even sure why I am here. And my son, that strange little duck, who just seemed to appear fully formed, a grown man, in the body of an infant, is not broken. He is not waiting to be mended. There is no team of surgeons to reassure me. He is gone. There is just absence.
And I cannot lay my hand to his forehead and tell him everything is alright. And I cannot even give in to a full fit of worry because I keep just expecting him to pop up somewhere. I just keep looking at the bend in the road. I just keep watching the doors of the neighbor’s houses, waiting for them to open and him to appear. And I can laugh when he says he was only hiding somewhere and tell him that happened to me too once, when I was a child.
And telling him that story would be like a watershed for me. And we would move forward from this moment and I would be a better mother. And I would try to be what they needed more. I would comfort more. I would connect. Or at least I would try. I would try to wake up and not drift off out the window, awash in my own thoughts for an hour or more while the children wait for breakfast. I would hug them to me and ball them up tight. I would feel everything a mother should feel as it should be felt, when I should feel it. If only, just one of those doors would open, and out he would come. I would see his little round face, still sleepy, and realize he had his green shorts on, because when the police were here, I really couldn’t say.
Dear God. I would forgive everything. I would forgive every horrible thing. I would make myself supple and pliant. I would bend and find grace. I would venture out of my house to survey another’s tragedy on a mild summer evening if only it would just magically be another’s tragedy and not my own. I can’t have this kind of moment. I can’t have this happen to me.
What will I do? How can I go on from this?
I watch my husband. I have heard him explaining I am by the telephone, waiting for word. And ladies I don’t know offer to sit with me, worry I’m alone, but he reassures them I am where I need to be. But I am not. Even with today’s portability, I am a good three rings from the telephone. Maybe four. I figure kidnappers and hospitals and police detectives will allow me a few rings to answer.
And I punish myself for thinking these thoughts. He is not gone. And I am so selfish. I am so selfish. My son could be dead. He could by dying this moment and I am thinking wry thoughts about ransom and telephone etiquette. But then I say that it is only my surety that he is fine, soon to return, that allows for my sarcasm. This is what I do, constantly both berate and defend myself. And who can even answer a phone when one’s hands tremble like this?
And is this all real? All this emotion? Or am I only doing what I think I should? Am I only emulating other mothers I’ve seen on television movies about children who disappear never to return? It’s as if I’ve been humming along my whole life waiting for something to happen. And now it’s happening. And I want to go back to renegotiate the situation. But I can’t. Because God’s eye is sharp, his aim precise. And this whole plan has been planned so far in advance, without my knowing and the whole bitter lot of it has just been converging down to this moment, this wretched moment, ratcheting down and tightening until I am so very small and smaller and smaller, until I am the very universe just moments before exploding and I’ve only just realized all of this has been happening. And it all makes sense now, suddenly. And it’s clear. And here I am. I am the target, dead-center, the bullseye. And enjoy it because in the future, like stars, you’ll be finding bits of me in everything.