From GONE, a novel
I keep a phone next to my bed, an ancient model with an old-style industrial-strength ringer. They built them like tanks in days gone by, with bells that could cut through other sounds like a machete through cobwebs. You could drop those phones from the top of a 15-story building, it wouldn't quiet them down at all.
Now that I think about it, though, the phone is not exactly kept next to the bed. It's plugged into a socket out in the foyer where the answering machine lives, with two long extension cords, end to end, so that I can drag it around the apartment. Meaning it's kept wherever it happens to land. Colin hates that phone. When he's staying with me I try to keep it on the reading table next to my bed so I can grab it immediately -- the racket the bugger makes scares the bejesus out of him. When he's not with me I tend to forget about it. Then if someone surprises me with a nighttime call I have to fly up out of the covers and trip over toys, clothing, etc. to find the damn thing.
I met no one I knew or wanted to know in the Square, returning home at a reasonable (for me) hour, actually dropping into bed by 1 a.m. The phone spent that night on the reading table while I tried to sleep. Murky early-morning dozing brought anxious dreams in which I fled, pursued by a dark, looming presence that steadily gained ground no matter how frantically my running feet tried to attain light speed. Shortly before 7, the phone's clanging jerked me up from hazy, agitated semiconsciousness. I fumbled the receiver to my ear, a nice voice said, "Dennis, it's Cheryl."
I tried to answer as if I belonged to a higher-order species. The resulting incoherence at least sounded polite and inoffensive instead of barkingly irate.
"I'm sorry," Cheryl responded cautiously, "what?"
I took half a mo' to gather myself and lick dry lips before croaking, "Good morning."
"Are you going to work today?"
"I was planning to, yeah."
"I'm not going to be very available, so I thought we might talk before your morning got underway."
"So," she ventured, "how are you doing?"
"How am I doing," I mused, still befogged. "Not sleeping well."
"I wouldn't be either in your situation." A brief pause, then, "Do you know when she actually took off?"
"Friday. I found out Saturday night."
"Friday. Two and half, three days ago. Any idea where she might have gone?"
"No. I haven't called any relatives or friends yet. I wanted to hear what you thought first."
"Me? I think she made a mistake."
I was going to comment on her gift for understatement, but a moment of bleariness overrode anything my brain and vocal mechanism might have come up with. I tried to refocus, noted an unpleasant taste in my mouth, swallowed before speaking. "Last night," I finally said, "I went and tried to get some information about where they might have gone from the super of her apartment building."
"He said he couldn't tell me anything."
"Mm. We'll see."
"I found out she used Boucher to move her stuff."
"The moving company? How'd you manage that?"
"Used my charm on a tenant I ran into."
"Have you called the police?"
"No," I answered, feeling a touch nervous about that answer. "Should I have done that first thing?"
"Not necessarily. It should happen soon, though. Will you have time today?"
"I'll make time." I thought for a moment about the impact this might have on my job, and therefore income, realized that line of thought was not going to help, pushed it aside. "Cheryl," I said, then stopped, not sure what I wanted to express.
She stepped into the breach. "It's going to be all right," she said kindly. I stayed silent. "It doesn't feel like it right now, I know, but things will work out. In the majority of cases like these, the children are found and returned fairly quickly."
"And the rest of them?"
"This is not the time to go down that road. We can talk about the less likely possibilities when you've gotten a little rest. In the meantime, first things first."
"First things first," I agreed. "Go to the police. Then what? Go back to court? Hire a P.I.? Get in touch with missing children agencies?"
"I'll call Sheila's employer and see what I can find out there. You call Colin's pre-school, do the same. Then make a police report. They'll probably give you some information about missing children agencies. It's in your favor that you have shared custody. They'll pay more attention to you than they might otherwise."
"Most likely. You've got a court order on your side, that should be all the back-up you need."
"Could there be some difficulty otherwise?"
"Well, sometimes the father is given less credence than the mother." I could only snort at that one. Not that there aren't many fathers who lack credibility -- God knows, a fairly hefty percentage of us male humans are about as innocent and trustworthy as a frat party on PCP. I just didn't see how that sentiment could be applied to me given my sitch. "Listen," Cheryl went on, "this shouldn't be a problem. Go to the police, fill out a report, see what they tell you. I'll do some research today, we'll talk this evening. That all right?"
"Yeah." I heard a sour tone in my response and amended it. "It's fine. I'm fine. Really."
"Don't overdo it. You don't have to be a boy scout. You're in the middle of something serious -- if you sound less than joyful I won't mind."
I never wanted to be a boy scout. Something about the uniforms. I found myself reflecting on that and mentally tried to shake myself awake. Tired or not, time to get a grip. Cheryl spoke again, I attempted to focus.
"So I'll call tonight after dinner sometime. We'll see what's what, okay?"
"Okay." We said good-bye, hung up, I found myself alone with my thoughts. In the best of times my head is not a place one should go without adult supervision. During passages like this -- well, it's not pretty. The apartment felt excessively quiet and still around me. I'm not sure how long I sat there. I know that at some point the morning's growing light seeped through my personal darkness, rousing me to get up and start what promised to be an interesting day.
After a shower and the daily facial bloodletting, I pulled on work clothes, wandered into the kitchen, dumped some granola into a bowl. (You have to eat granola if you live in Cambridge -- it's the law.) I'd begun spooning it into my mouth when the phone rang. My feet carried me back to the bedroom in a hurry, my hand reached the phone before the fourth ring.
"Yo, Dennis." I wasn't used to hearing from Steve at that time of day. I wasn't used to hearing from anyone, really, at that time of day. Asking me to converse before 9 or so a.m. and an infusion of food/caffeine does not normally elicit happy behavior from me. These not being normal times, I tried to adjust. A greeting sounding vaguely like "Hey" spilled from my mouth, along with bits of sodden granola.
"This too early? I wanted to get you before you left for work."
"It's early," I said, brushing cereal off my clothing, then managed to tack on a barely sincere, "but don't sweat it." The granola left a couple of spots on my shirt, I tried to get them out by rubbing drooled saliva into the fabric. Thank God I wasn't on a videophone. "What's going on?"
"Boo told me what's up."
"Oh? Hm. Uh-huh." Wasn't sure how I felt about that information being passed around.
"Yeah. Anything I can do?"
The mid-November sun had barely managed to pull itself up from the horizon. Did these people honestly expect me to think, reason and analyze like a high-functioning grown-up before I'd had a few hours to regain consciousness?
"Steve," I said, "listen, I don't know yet. I appreciate you asking, and there may be things I'll need help with, but I can't really get into it now. I need to sit down and get a fix on whereall I am."
"'Whereall,' as in 'where the fuck.'"
"Gotcha. No problem. Page me if you need anything."
"You gonna be at home?"
"Don't know. Maybe."
"Should I call you there?"
"No, page me."
"In case I'm not. I'll call you back either way."
"Whatever. Call me, page me -- I'm here to help."
Steve loves high-tech frufru, normally I'm happy to indulge. I just couldn't get it up for the guy right then, so to speak. Making a mental note to apologize at some point for a less than sprightly phone manner, I retrieved my cereal bowl, meandered around the flat as I ate. Which led me to Colin's room, a place I'd managed to avoid since finding out he'd been disappeared.
The door to the room, nearly closed, sported specimens of Colin's art affixed with liberal amounts of tape: two pages of fingerpaint, heavy on the yellow and fire-engine red; a page of serious crayon mayhem; a page of carefully arranged pieces of construction paper, glued down and heavily marked up with dinosaur stamps I'd given him for his birthday. He got a little carried away between pounding the stamp pad and pounding the paper, so that the dinosaurs appeared to be performing wild gymnastics, desperately in search of gravity. The gallery included, also, one page with his name pencilled in the big, sprawling, barely-in-control letters four- and five-year-olds produce. And a panel from the Sunday comics, from a dimwitted strip about an obnoxious cat that sent Colin into paroxysms of laughter every time he saw it. It's an immensely popular strip, and I feel strangely out of step when faced with the rapture it induces in my son.
The slice of room I could see between door edge and doorframe showed a space aspiring to tidiness but close to surrender. I nudged the door gently open with a toe and looked around. A small, imperfectly-made bed, blue blanket hurriedly tossed over sheets printed with ochre rocking horses, pillows resting against the wall. A small blue dresser, gradually succumbing to a persistent onslaught of stickers -- two out of three drawers slightly open, foaming over with socks and underwear. A small table and chair over by the window, miraculously unstickered so far, the chair strung with a sweatshirt and a couple of garlands Colin had pieced together from pipe cleaners, candy wrappers, little plastic doodads. Various items littered the table, its top streaked and smeared from errant magic markers, the treasured miscellany cascading over the edge of the table into crates that held toys and invaluable found trinkets of trash. The crates in turn overflowed onto the floor by the table, but politely so. Not aggressive, not yet threatening out-and-out anarchy. The door to the closet stood ajar, clothes could be seen on hangers and in shelves, in a ragged semblance of orderly storage. Again, a little sloppy, but a liveable, amiable sloppiness. Friendly. Not concerned with matters weightier than the whereabouts of a toy or t-shirt.
On the dresser, angled away from the door, stood a framed snapshot of the three of us in better times, the most recent shot I had of Sheila. At Cranes Beach, three or four months before Colin's second birthday. One of the last family outings -- an exceptionally warm winter day, all three of us feeling the balm of mild, salty air, surf sounds, long expanses of sand. Colin's exuberant pleasure at experiencing it all, everything still fresh and new to him. The first time, I think, he'd ever seen sea gulls, the large gray birds standing around in loose groups on the sand, each body perched atop stilt-thin legs, facing into the wind, watching us warily with beady eyes as we approached. At the sight of them Colin took off, propelled by joyful curiosity, getting up as much speed as his teeny, still-sometimes-shaky-legged body could muster -- meaning cheerful and enthusiastic, but not very fast -- his veering, stumpy-stepped course taking him from point A to point B long after the birds had moved on to point C. He'd get to point B, look around (an enormous goofy grin spread across his face), then run toward point C, arms up in the air, feet pumping happily away.
The temperate air, the pleasure of Colin's comic exhilaration brought Sheila and I together with a warmth that had been absent for some time, and when we asked a passing 50ish woman to take a picture of us, our relaxed smiles were genuine. And there we were, together, Colin in our arms, the wind blowing our hair in loose, dark tendrils.
A nice photo. Taken a long time ago now.
It occurred to me I'd probably need a snapshot of Sheila to give to the police and I stepped into the room, put my bowl on the dresser, removed the picture from the frame. My eyes rested on it briefly, then shifted away in discomfort before I slid it into my shirt pocket, turning unhappy attention to the vista out the window. Colin enjoyed this view. He liked the way clouds blew over the building from the west and disappeared off toward the east. He liked the way cars came and went from the parking lot, people getting in and out, immersed in the concerns of their own little worlds. And he liked the big trees off to one side.
Birds lived in those trees during the warm season, singing, squabbling, raising families. In the autumn, the leaves turned bright, glowing shades of red and gold before dropping to the asphalt below. The branches' denuding revealed squirrel nests, oversized clots of leaves sheltering hyperactive rodents who came and went, chasing each other around the trees, using nearby utility lines as elevated highways to other parts of the 'hood, all providing unending fascination and entertainment for Colin the Great Critter-Watcher.
Stepping into the room had given me a shot of warmth simply from being in its sunlit space. The warmth bled away as memories shifted slowly to brooding, I retreated back out to the hallway, pulling the door softly shut behind me.
The feel of the photo in my pocket reminded me I had steps to take, my thoughts turning to the oncoming day. Work, pre-school, police department. What else? Bother the management company of Sheila's building? Or bother the moving company? Neither, I suspected, would be very loose with information. What do I do? Plead, beg, cajole? Attempt bribery? Shower them with bitter tears? Threatening was out. What would I threaten them with -- further annoying visits?
Given a similar situation, it occurred to me, my father would come up with something. He never chose to share his savvy with me, though, and I wasn't about to run to the Cambridge library and riffle through his memoirs to study his technique. To hell with him. I'd figure out what I needed to do.
At work, I gave my supervisor the bare-bones lowdown on my life's current wackiness, letting her know that personal matters might need a lot of my attention for a while, then asking for the afternoon off. She had no problem with giving me the needed time -- it was the little voice in my head that caused trouble. "Stop!" it cried. "Danger! Panic! Diminished cash flow! What about the rent? What about child support?"
Who, I thought, would I pay child support to unless I tracked down the missing dramatis personae in my family's soap opera? That's me, taking off from work so I can track down the biggest financial drain in my little universe, the part of life many deadbeats would be glad to see gone. After which I would then get back into my treadwheel and work hard to make a decent chunk o' change that would immediately go flying out the door. I am not a gerbil! I am a human being!
If one has any interest in peace of mind, thoughts like those don't warrant much air time. I got on the phone, got ahold of Steve, arranged for him to pick me up when I left work. Then I called Colin's pre-school and spoke with Mrs. Morgan (motto: "I'll talk to you as soon as I peel these children off me"). She informed me that Sheila had given them 24 hours notice that she'd be withdrawing Colin from the school.
"Did she tell you," I asked, "why Colin would no longer be attending?"
"She said they were moving."
"I see. And you could allow that without getting confirmation from me?"
"Well, yes." I heard worry in her voice.
"You don't need to hear from both parents in cases of joint custody?"
"No, not for pre-school. It would be nice, of course, but it rarely happens. Is everything all right?"
I paused for a moment, pondering whether to get into it or not, decided on not and said something vague about unexpected complications. Then got off the phone, no smarter than when I'd dialed.
When I walked out of the building at 1 p.m., Steve's vintage Chevy Malibu convertible (the "'Bu" -- no connection with Boo) sat by a hydrant, Himself behind the wheel, sunglasses in place, hair bristling from a recent cut.
"Steven," I said as I opened the passenger-side door and got in, clearing away books, old newspapers, empty food wrappers.
"Dennisdude," came the return greeting. He held out his hand, I took it, we shook.
He had the heat on, the car was comfortably warm. I unzipped my jacket, giving him the once over. "What's with the 'do?" I asked.
A shrug. "Needed a trim. It won't be like this long." He raised a hand and smoothed the bristles, they immediately sprang back up.
"It gives you an edgy look. I think it's you."
"Makes a good counterpoint to your otherwise severely straight image."
He nodded slightly, thinking about that before saying, "Where to?"
"Boucher Moving, Harrison Street. Then over to Cambridge."
"Do they know the deal yet?"
His eyes remained on me for a moment as he absorbed the afternoon that lay ahead. At least I think his eyes remained on me. How can you tell when someone's hiding behind a pair of shades? They could be looking anywhere.
Steve got the 'Bu going and pulled out into traffic. By the time we made it to the Boucher warehouse, I'd filled him in on the relevant current events. He listened without interrupting, made little commentary, asked few questions. I got the impression the situation may have been a bit deeper than the level of intrigue he was used to.
We were welcomed with a parking space near the front entrance. Inside, we found a well-lit office, a door off to the left leading out to the garage where I could see a truck being serviced and a ramp leading up to the second floor and beyond -- home, presumably, to the company's storage units. The office featurd the accoutrement of the moving biz displayed here and there -- your boxes, your ropes, your packing tape -- and a tired-looking, Rubenesque 40-something behind the counter, graying brown hair swept up in a bun, wearing khaki pants and a red, short-sleeved knit shirt with the legend "Boucher" sewn above the breast pocket. Her eyes appeared fatigued and sat atop bags sizeable enough to qualify as luggage.
"What can I do for you?" she asked nicely as we approached. A nametag above the "Boucher" legend on her shirt read "Claire."
I produced a friendly smile in return. "I'm afraid I'm not exactly here to find out about moving. I'm hoping you can give me some information."
Her cordial expression held, though shaded with caution. "What kind of information?" she asked.
"Well," I began, then paused. Claire's eyes had wandered in Steve's direction, her smile faltering slightly. I glanced over at Steve, shades on, hair bristling, expression dour. Not purposely trying to give anyone the creeps, I'm sure, but if he'd worn a dark suit, he could easily have passed for a youthful, deviant government agent. Claire's gaze returned to me, refocusing.
"I'm trying," I said, "to find out about someone you moved last Friday, a woman named Sheila Corcoran." Claire's eyes remained on me, volunteering nothing. "I need to get a forwarding address. I'm hoping there might be some way you could help me."
"I'm sorry, we can't give out any information about customers."
"I know. I understand that. This is extremely important. All I want to find out is a forwarding address."
"There's really nothing I can do. I'm sorry. I could get in a lot of trouble if I handed out data like that."
I looked over at Steve, he arched an eyebrow. "Is there," I asked, turning back to Claire, "someone else I could speak to? A supervisor or something?"
She paused in the briefest way before answering, "Yes, of course." I thanked her, trying to sound genuinely appreciative -- Mr. Sincerity, the working person's amigo. She, in turn, presented me with a smile before picking up the phone and pressing a button. "Chuck to the main office, please," she said into the mouthpiece. "Chuck to the main office." As she spoke, I could hear a trebley version of her voice from a PA speaker somewhere out in the garage. Another customer strolled through the front door as Claire replaced the phone in its cradle with a slight rattle. "He should be right along," she informed me before turning her cordial smile to the new arrival.
Steve seemed to aim a look my way -- hard to tell for sure through the shades -- then wandered over to the front window to gaze out at the day. A breeze drove a page of newsprint down the sidewalk, followed quickly by errant leaves and a tumbling candy bar wrapper. I studied the exhibit of packing boxes while Claire spoke with the new prospect, a tall, suave, moussed-up, mid-40s guy in a brown leather jacket and tasseled loafers who seemed more concerned with making a play for the help than with preparing for a move.
The door to the garage opened, a slender, balding black man stepped in, wiping his hands on a once-orange rag as he looked around. An inch or so taller than me, making him about five-eleven, wearing glasses and well-worn grey work pants below a stained thermal vest over a similarly soiled red Boucher shirt. Claire broke off trying to talk business. "This gentleman would like to speak with you," she called to the black man, gesturing in my direction. He appraised me, raising his chin in inquiry. The lenses in his glasses made his eyes appear large and plaintive.
"I'm sorry to bother you like this," I said, crossing to stand before him.
"No bother," he replied, stuffing the rag into a back pocket. "There a problem?"
"Not at all. I asked to speak with you because I think I need to appeal to a higher authority."
A wry smile passed across his face at that, his eyes becoming watchful. "Whassup?"
"Well. I'm trying to get some information."
"Your company moved someone last Friday morning, someone I know, and I'm trying to get ahold of a forwarding address." His head moved back and forth in a no-nonsense turndown before I'd finished speaking.
"Can't do it. We can't give out anything like that." The other customer either finished up or gave up, exiting in a flourish of brown leather and cologne, leaving Claire free to observe the progress of my appeal.
"I understand it's not policy...."
"Nothin' to do with policy, man. We just can't do it. Liability."
"I hear you. The only reason I'm bothering you like this is because it's so important."
"It may be important. Still can't help you. You say you know this person?"
"How well you know them?"
More than one answer tried to elbow their way out; I settled for, "Very well."
"You know them so well, how come you didn't get an address or phone number from them?"
I pulled the family photo from my pocket, extending it to Chuck. "It's my ex." He took the picture, lifting his glasses up away from his eyes as he studied it. "She moved without letting me know she was going. She disappeared with our son." His eyes rose from the snapshot to meet mine. "My son is gone and I don't know where they are. That's why I'm here asking for help like this." He looked back down at the shot. "Sheila Corcoran. My son's name is Colin."
His head swung slowly from side to side before he looked back up at me. "I'm sorry, I'm really very sorry, but there's nothing we can do. You been to the police?" He pronounced it po-lice. I'd never heard anyone do that in real life before.
"Not yet. We're going there from here."
I gestured toward Steve standing by the window, who turned and looked over. The shades had finally been removed. Chuck lowered his glasses into place and took him in, expression neutral, before turning back to me, handing the photo over. "Sorry. Nothin' we can do. You need to deal with the ‘thorities about this, not us." He stepped back from me, spreading his hands out from his sides in a kind of shrugging apology/get-lost gesture. Looking over at Claire, he asked, "Anything else you need?"
She looked up from the computer where she had begun working to say, "No, nothing," Chuck looked back at me, nodded, then left the way he'd come in.
Steve made his way around the various displays to my side. "Now what?"
"Jesus, I don't know. The cops I guess."
Right about then, Claire said, "Excuse me." It was her tone that caught my attention more than anything. Looking over showed her tapping at the computer keyboard, staring intently at the screen.
"Are you," I ventured uncertainly, "talking to us?"
"Yes." She glanced quickly at the door to the garage, then over at Steve and myself. "Your ex...."
"What?" I blinked, uncomprehending. "What about her?"
Claire's expression stayed carefully neutral. "Sheila Corcoran. Last Friday. Her things were moved out of an apartment in Cambridge and put in storage."
"Storage?" I echoed thickly, crossing to the counter.
"Here?" Steve cut in. "Is the stuff on premises?"
Claire nodded, looking at Steve, then me, then back to the computer. "It's all been put into a unit upstairs."
"What about a forwarding address?" Steve pursued.
She chewed her lip before answering. "The forwarding address is a post office box. In Cambridge." She paused then gazed at me appraisingly before saying, "May I see that photo of your son?" I fished it out of my pocket, handed it over. She examined it for a moment, Steve and I standing quietly by. The breeze outside rattled the front window.
"How old is he?" Claire asked.
"This is an old photo then."
"Yes. My ex and I have been apart for a while."
"He has a sweet face."
"Thanks. He's a great kid."
She passed the picture back to me with a small, gentle smile. "If anything like this happened to my son...." She paused as if searching for an end to that thought, then shook her head slightly, her expression returning to something more neutral. "Well," she said, "I'm sorry I can't help you." She stood there for a moment gazing at the computer screen, then turned and walked away, disappearing into an office where she began loudly straightening up the desk. I remained by the counter, wondering what had just happened until Steve poked me. I looked around, he slipped a pen and a small pad of paper into my hands.
"Let's go," he told me ,sotto voce, jerking a thumb at the computer. I hesitated, he prodded me again. "Come on," he urged, casting a nervous glance toward the garage. I finally leaned over the counter, scribbling down the work order number, storage compartment number and post office box.
Claire reappeared after I'd finished, dumping a wad of papers into a wastepaper basket before resuming her place at the computer. She hit a key that cleared the screen then looked at me, appearing tired.
"Will there be anything else?" she asked. Her eyes, I noticed, were traced with thin red veins, especially the inside corner of her left eye. This woman needed sleep, a vacation, a better job. A winning lottery ticket. Something.
"No, I think we're all set."
"All right," she said, voice softening just a touch. "Have a good day."
"Thank you," I replied, meaning it.
Outside, Steve and I headed back toward his car. Himself squinted into the November sunlight as he walked and slapped his shades back on. "What the hell," he said, "is going on with Sheila? Is she hiding out around here somewhere or what?"
We stopped by the 'Bu, a chilly breeze gusting up stiff around us, bits of paper and leaves swirling along the gutter. I hunched my shoulders, zipping up my jacket.
"I don't know what's going on," I finally said, shaking my head a bit. "This has all taken me by surprise."
"You didn't see it coming?"
"Nothing? No hints? No clues?"
"Don't know. None I can point to right at this moment."
Steve leaned against the 'Bu. "What are you going to do?
"Well," I said distractedly, one hand reaching up to feel through my jacket at the slip of paper in my shirt pocket, "start making some phone calls, I guess. Go to the police."
"Someone," said Steve, "has to know where she is."
"You'd think so, wouldn't you?" Maybe not, though. Sheila could be mighty secretive and close-mouthed when she wanted to be. I reflected for a moment, then said, "When Sheila found out she was pregnant, she didn't let on for a while. Took two, three weeks before she finally mentioned it. She'd been going through some morning sickness, serious enough that it was hard to miss. But, you know, I'd never had experience with that before -- what did I know? We'd been using protection, pregnancy never occurred to me. I tried to help out when I'd find her in discomfort, suggested going to a doctor. She told me not to make a fuss, that she'd picked up a bug, nothing more. A friend told me later she'd done her best to not let me know how much she was actually going through."
"How come?" His head made a lateral move of noncomprehension.
"Hell, who knows? Habitual distrust. Wasn't in love with me." I shrugged. "At some point, I finally put it all together -- I'd caught her throwing up, she was gaining weight, her moods were even more intense than normal." I shook my head in disgust. "I should have gotten the picture by her second morning of nausea."
Steve said nothing. I rubbed my face, remembering I had next to no sleep under my belt.
"How about we get going," I said.
He nodded. "Let's."
On the drive over to Cambridge I kept to myself, turning the big question over and over in my head, the big question being: how did I get myself into this situation? I'll be the first to admit that much of my romantic history could be described as unusually colorful, but none of my more youthful indiscretions were in the same class as this monster of a partnership.
It's a slippery process, trying to dissect a relationship post-mortem fashion. Easy to lapse into self-deception, into blame. Easy to slide around your part in the mix, because if your contributions undergo a genuine process of examination, you might find some things out. And then you might have to change. And by "you" I mean "me."
How much energy, I wonder, have I devoted to resisting change? Tremendous amounts, probably. Countless ergs and BTUs. We all do, right? (Just say yes.) And as the saying goes, resistance is futile. Even as we grit our teeth and dig in our heels to hold on to things as they are, grass springs up around our feet, dust settles over everything, buildings weather and sag, relationships collapse.
While Steve occupied himself pissing off other drivers, I pondered the decline of my one and only marriage. No big mystery there, really. We were a terrible match, we just didn't get it until the initial excitement began to settle down. 'Cause for a while there sparks flew in an intensely pleasurable way. Big fireworks of infatuation that ignited the relationship and carried it some distance. At least through the Big Sex period, a time of bonding/calorie-burning that convinced me I'd found a twin soul -- an embarrassing fallacy my friends kindly never remind me of. Not that it wasn't genuinely felt. It was. It was just, er, completely blinkered.
That first dinner in Central Square, that's where it happened, me sitting across a small, glass-topped table from this woman, talking, watching, listening. Admiring her smarts, her dark sexiness. And she enjoyed the attention, gradually relaxing. There was a moment when I looked down at my plate, taking a mouthful of spicy food. When I looked back up, I found her gaze on me, something shining in those eyes. For a few seconds we regarded each other, and in those seconds something passed between us, a recognition of some kind, an agreement.
The meal drew to a close the same way it had begun, in a watchful dance of probing forays. But the subtext had changed. A connection had been acknowledged, began slowly gathering steam.
This may all sound trite, I know, but it was heady stuff. We both badly wanted what we thought we'd found, making the inevitable comedown sharply disappointing. Galling, sad, bitter, all that. Bitter, in particular, for her. She's big on bitter.
She is not a bad person beneath all the anger. I may rant at times, but that's just a gauge of how messy the breakdown was and how difficult post-split-up detente has been.
When we left the Indian joint together that first evening, we paused outside before heading off separately. Momentarily quiet, breathing in cool air, not really looking at each other.
"So," I finally said, "feel like doing this again sometime?"
"That might be fun," she answered. She smiled as she spoke, in a way that narrowed her eyes nicely. That smile contained a number of things: pleasure, teasing humor, a daring me to try more.
"What about this weekend?" I pursued.
"This weekend. Let's see...." She closed one eye in mock thought, making a show of running through her schedule. "This weekend's good."
My little heart actually went pitty-pat. "Friday night?" I ventured.
"Hey, great. How about we talk before then and figure out the details?"
"How about it?"
"I can call you. Unless you want to call me."
She withdrew a ballpoint pen from a coat pocket, a nice one that sounded solid when she clicked the point out. "Give me your hand," she instructed. I gave. She took it in one of hers, wrote her phone number on my palm. The warmth of her skin against mine, her fingers' grip, the firm, tickling pressure of the penpoint moving on my skin -- all adding up to a tantalizingly rich moment, brimming over with feelings and sensation.
She released my hand, I looked at the number. "I'll call," I assured her.
"I'll be waiting," she said. We exchanged good-nights, she turned and headed north up Mass. Ave. I watched her move away, her hips and dark hair swaying slightly in time with the sound of her boot heels on the sidewalk, as if I could suddenly see the ticking of my life in her diminishing figure.
Not a bad beginning to a romance, though I tend to think about it ruefully now in light of the shipwreck it ultimately became. Or train wreck. Whichever metaphor I'm supposed to drag out for this kind of thing.
It wouldn't have become so godawful messy if Colin hadn't shown up. Without a child in the mix we probably would never have gotten married. The relationship would have foundered, we would have closed up shop and gone our individual ways, happily hating one another, never having to deal with each other ever again apart from the occasional encounter on the social circuit.
But then I wouldn't have Colin. I wouldn't have a quirky little urchin who likes me to read to him and wakes me up at 2 a.m. for a glass of water.
I remembered once more that I no longer had that little urchin, bringing me back to my seat in the ‘Bu, nearing the Cambridge Police Station in Steve's vintage mobile locker room.
"Are we there yet?" I asked unhappily.
"Almost," came the answer as Steve maneuvered quickly around a double-parked delivery truck, beating out another driver, who responded with a petulant-sounding horn. "Nearly." We were speeding up River Street.
River Street: a one-way two-lane that siphons traffic through Cambridge's southernmost neighborhood into Central Square. A long, straight stretch in from the Charles River with a posted speed limit of 25. Actual speeds range from 30 to 50 miles per hour. You travel the limit at the risk of finding a hopped-up Richard Petty wannabe looming off your rear bumper, trying to intimidate you into accelerating. Not a terribly civil length of asphalt, one of the many reasons I don't mind not having a car.
We rapidly approached the square, Steve maintaining speed until we had to pull to the left for the turn onto Green Street. Cars flew by us on the right as soon as we slowed down. The fact that they were flying by the police station didn't seem to bother them. Maybe because the Cambridge constabulary didn't normally pay much attention to traffic mischief that didn't result in bent metal and pools of blood.
Steve pulled to the curb on Green Street, I hauled myself out. He offered to come in with me, I told him I should probably take care of this task on my own, we arranged to meet at the Nine afterwards.
I'd never been in a police station prior to this, but like every other God-fearing American I've seen a million TV cop dramas in which law enforcement personnel tramp in and out of station houses, leaving me with a pretty clear idea of how one should look. The Cambridge Police Station had the right feel, but appeared a bit more institutional than its television counterparts. Slightly less personality, at least as far as the lobby. And what did I expect? It's a public building, a real-life cop-house. It looked like one. Your front desk, your thick glass, linoleum tiles, uncomfortable plastic chairs, pamphlets on a low table.
A hefty, broad-shouldered sergeant with a brush cut sat behind the desk, dealing with papers. A black female cop and a middle-aged uniform talked loudly in a little office behind the desk. I could hear faint voices and bursts of static from a radio somewhere out of view. All three of the detex I could see sported stripes on their arms, the middle-aged guy showing the biggest collection.
"Can I help you?" the sergeant asked, businesslike, as I approached.
"I need to report a kidnapping." There's something you don't get to say every day.
His eyes focused on me with a bit more attention. "Kidnapping?"
"No, sorry," I stammered. "Abduction."
"Friday. My ex-wife disappeared with our son."
His eyes remained on me for an instant, then he turned toward the office. "Officer Jackson."
The conversation broke off. "Yeah?" asked the policewoman.
"This gentleman is reporting an abduction. Parental."
She moved to the office door, eyed me before speaking. "If you can wait a moment, sir, I'll be right with you."
I said, "Okay," and paced a rambling, wavering circuit around the room as unobtrusively as I could manage. Traffic noise continued outside, punctuated now and then by the rumble of a passing truck. The sergeant paged through the paper in front of him, singing something under his breath that sounded like "What's New, Pussycat?" Tom Jones is everywhere.
Officer Jackson reappeared, holding some paper. "Sir, if you'll come with me, I'll take your information." My information. I thought about that as I followed her out a doorway and down a hall. A good euphemistic phrase -- official sounding, yet vague enough to neutralize drama and upset, or at least muffle it a bit.
Officer Jackson walked ahead of me into a large room containing several desks. Part of me maintained awareness of the woman's body in a police uniform moving ahead of me, another part wondered if I should feel concerned about my lack of interest in it. Still another observed my passage through this alien environment with a calm sense of unreality.
Men sat at two desks: one in uniform, making notes on material from a thick file that lay spread open before him; the other in shirt and tie, a phone cradled between shoulder and ear, playing with a rubber band, staring out a dirty window at mid-afternoon sunlight.
Officer Jackson approached a tired metal desk positioned in a far corner of the room and pulled out a chair for herself, gesturing toward another one positioned in the aisle for me. Office furniture, unremarkable even when new. Grays, faded greens, some chrome, some black trim, the furniture and the room. Institutional, all the way down to the faint odors I couldn't identify.
I sat, Officer Jackson pulled a pen from her breast pocket and lay the forms on the desk blotter, looking at me. I could see "INCIDENT REPORT" printed on the sheet that topped the small stack and thought I saw "MISSING PERSON" on the sheet beneath that. Colin had become a potential milk-carton face. I averted my eyes, advising myself not to go down that particular road. Instead, I studied Officer Jackson.
An interesting looking individual, actually, Officer Jackson. Close-cropped hair, the kind that would make a nice Afro if allowed to flourish. Skin medium brown, smooth, though with nicks and some slight acne scarring. Body a bit bulky with muscle, clearly in good condition. Hands thicker than most women's -- working hands. Facial features pleasantly bland, expression kept carefully neutral. Medium-sized mouth, wide nose, broad cheekbones, eyebrows carefully arched, but not thin. Nice brown eyes with a direct gaze, but professionally distant.
That gaze met mine. "May I have your name?" she asked.
"Spell Marlowe for me, please." I did. "Middle name?"
I waved a hand. "I never use it."
"For our records, please."
I told her, along with how long I'd lived there, my phone number, my age. She didn't ask for my height, weight, shoe size or favorite recipes. She did ask about my marital status, though, which segued neatly into the point of my visit.
"Your wife?" she asked when I told her the sitch. "Disappeared with your son?" Her eyes held mine, their gaze clear and direct.
"Who has custody?"
"We both do."
"Joint custody?" I nodded, she made a note before looking back up at me. "I'll need documentation confirming that. When did this happen?"
"When did they take off?" She nodded. "Friday morning."
"Friday? Three days ago?"
"Why the delay in reporting it?"
I shifted in my chair, uncomfortable. "I didn't find out until Saturday night and I've been trying to get a line on what actually happened."
A neutral nod from her, she made a note. "Anything like this ever happened before?"
"Not exactly like this. She tried to keep me from seeing him for a while and I had to go to court."
"Did you file any police reports about that?"
"I don't think so. The whole thing went through our attorneys."
"Who's your attorney?"
She wrote, asked me for Cheryl's phone number, I supplied it. "What's your wife's name?"
"Ex-wife. Sheila Christine Corcoran."
"That her maiden name?"
"It is. She's been using it since we split up."
"And your son?"
"Colin Terrence Marlowe." I remembered the photo, fumbled around in my pocket and produced it. She took it, studied it, looked back at me.
"When was this taken?"
"A while ago. Two and a half years or more."
"Do you have anything taken more recently?"
"Not of her. I have some of him."
"We'll need a good recent photo. Is he a special-needs child?"
That one startled me, but the question came in such a matter-of-fact way that I was able to produce a "no" without too much hesitation.
"What's his birthdate?" I told her. She asked for Sheila's age, I told her. "How did you find out they were gone?" she asked. Which gave me entrée to unload the whole sordid tale, from Reggie's disclosure to my trips to Sheila's building to this afternoon's expedition and the storage/p.o. box disclosure. Officer Jackson jotted notes, asking questions now and then. When my narrative finally petered out, I tried to sit quietly while she finished writing. I tried, but my body couldn't seem to manage. Fingers tapped, legs crossed and uncrossed. My eyes burned with fatigue, I blinked in response, making eye-widening faces to clear vision and thickening mental cobwebs. The air in the place had become uncomfortably warm, I grasped the arms of the chair, pushing myself into a straightbacked position, mouth open. One of the other officers got up, chair legs sliding against linoleum with a sudden short squeal, I jerked at the sound. Officer Jackson looked up.
I nodded and said, "It's a little stuffy in here."
"Would you like some water?"
"Sure." I started to get up, she put a hand on my arm.
"I'll get it. Stay here." She got up, left the room. I had a strong impulse to sprint out of there, find the nearest exit and escape into the open air, but I managed to stay put. My head started up with a mild throb, I closed my eyes, put a hand to my face for a moment. When I next looked around, Officer Jackson approached with a small paper cup. She handed it to me, I lifted it to my lips, water flowed into my mouth, cold and bracing.
"So," says Officer Jackson, sitting down, "you all right?"
"I'm fine." The index finger and thumb of one hand went to either side of my nose, applying pressure there, then around my eye sockets. "Just a little short on sleep."
"That's understandable." She watched me for a moment. "Do you think your son is in any danger?"
"Danger? Physical danger?" She nodded. "No, not from Sheila. I don't think so."
"Have you ever seen any evidence of physical abuse?"
I stared at her, taken aback at the question. "No. She's angry at me, not at Colin."
"Trust me, I wouldn't protect her if I suspected that kind of trouble."
She nodded, looking back down at the papers. After a pause, she asked about Sheila's job and bank, then about Colin's preschool, scribbling down the details. When she'd finished, she looked up at me thoughtfully. "Any idea," she asked, "where they might have gone?"
I looked at her hands, in repose for the moment, the small ridges of veins beneath brown skin spreading out from shirt cuffs toward fingers. The pen remained momentarily still, I noticed she held it in her left hand.
"I'm not sure," I finally said. "I can't imagine anyone I know sheltering her for something like this."
"Family? Friends?" Right then I couldn't come up with anything more than a look of bewilderment. Not the answer she'd been hoping for, judging by what little expression she allowed to show. She asked me for names and ways to contact them, I gave her what I could, told her I'd call with more, probably the next morning.
"What happens from here?" I asked.
"We get the Missing Persons Unit involved, start digging around and see what comes to light. We speak with her preschool, see if we can get more out of them than you did. Speak with your attorney and your ex-wife's employer. Get in touch with her bank, see what we can find out there, then get in touch with the post office about the post office box. We may need to see your son's medical and dental records." I stared at her, trying to keep my breathing regular. "If we do, I'll need you to sign a release. All right?" I nodded. She gave me an assessing look. "How are you doing?"
I shook my head slightly, drew in a breath. "I'm okay."
I nodded. "I'm okay." Mr. Stoic, son of Mr. Stoic, Sr.
"Okay. Well. If you can get us a more recent photo of your son, that would be helpful. For the rest of the week we'll want to speak with you every day. If you have any questions, call. If anything develops, call. Don't wait."
I told her I would, feeling something odd down in my gut at the thought of all that contact, at the thought of the sitch continuing for days or weeks, becoming part of my existence.
"Anything else," she said, "you can think of we should know?"
I frowned, nothing coming to mind, shook my head.
"Okay then," she said, getting to her feet, "we'll be in touch." I got to my feet, feeling surprisingly coordinated. She reminded me to pull together whatever names and phone numbers I could come up with as far as Sheila's family and friends, I said I would. She extended her hand, I took it, we shook. I told her I could find my way out and bolted.
Outside, the wind whipped around the corner as I did up my jacket. The day had leaned far enough toward evening that Green Street lay in shadow, at least on the station house block. I cut through the parking lot at the corner of Pleasant Street, making a beeline for Mass. Ave. and the Nine.
When I stepped in the front door I found myself in the Cambridge version of a Hopper painting, late afternoon sun slicing through the broad windows to paint the eastern inner wall with golden light, the tables half empty, most everyone there sitting by themselves. Steve waved, my feet found their way to his table, near the rear of the joint.
"How'd it go?" he asked. His hands held a mug of high-test, a wisp of thin vapor trailing up from it.
I shrugged, looking over toward the counter, wondering if I wanted something and if I had the funds to toss in that direction. It was about then that some chaotic jazz started honking away on the house music system. Combined with the racket going on in my head, it was too much.
"You know," I said, "I think I should go home."
"Home?" said Steve, surprised.
"Home. Bath, food, TV, bed."
"Oh, home. Want a ride?"
I retraced my steps to the door. The air outside remained cold, the breeze sharp. Traffic staggered by with increasing noise, approaching rush hour. I hardly noticed, the hubbub in my cranium being the unruly mess that it was.
Steve appeared by my side, gestured for me to follow, headed north up Mass. Ave. I trailed after.
© 2002, 2009 by runswithscissors