Saturday, July 28th, 4:00 PM. It’s been six hours since she disappeared. No signs of foul play, and she’s technically not a missing person yet ‒ on top of which she’s a grown woman ‒ so what can the police do? What can we do? She’s not answering her calls. She didn’t leave any kind of note. We searched the beach from top to bottom and she wasn’t there. We went back to the property and turned it inside out: nothing. I don’t know where she could be. I don’t know what’s happening.
We’re at Helen’s Diner. My Dad’s been vacuuming the meatloaf off his plate, and I felt weird just watching him eat, so now I’m almost done with my food too. Neither of us has said a word since we sat down. My Dad leans back in the booth and lets out a broken sigh. I wait.
“Was there anything ‒ when I was gone and it was just you and Mom together, was there ‒ did she say anything? Was she acting in any kind of way you noticed that was different or made you think...?”
It’s so hard for him to be asking me this; he’s looking out the window like he’s actually asking his own reflection.
He might as well be.
I’m ashamed. My Dad’s barely looked at me since this whole thing started. He needs something from me. The answer to his question is yes and no. The answer is that Mom couldn’t possibly be tracked through all her mood swings. What would “acting different” mean? She was miserable on the drive up here. Then, when he left, when Mom and I were alone, she seemed happy. Then he came back, yesterday, and she still was in a good mood. Until last night. We both know perfectly well what happened last night. Dad was there, and I was there, and she was there. Now she’s gone.
I don’t know how to say all that to him, though, without it sounding terrible
We arrived at the property on Wednesday the 20th, in the evening. A night of setting up our tents and buying groceries. Then, the next day, my Dad drove out to Ponten, for a business conference. My Mom woke me up early. 7:00 A.M., she flung off my blankets and started belting out that song, “It’s Five O’Clock in the morning, you’re lying in your bed, you wonder why it’s not morning in your heaaaaaaad.” Obviously I was pissed, she knows I usually sleep till eleven, but she was so cheery, she had such joy in her eyes, that I couldn’t help but smile. I was happy to see her happy.
“All right Buddy-Boy Buster Brown: no loafing today. Number one, we’re going out on the kayaks. Number two, you’re gonna learn how to use the grill, once and for all. You’re sixteen years old, you’re almost a man now, you need to know these things. Number three, we’re painting the cabin. Your poor old father has been working hard while we’ve been sitting on our butts; it’s time to do something nice. Understand?”
No, I did not. I did not understand why she suddenly seemed so fond of her family.
My parents have been fighting. Or, that’s not entirely accurate. It would be more accurate to say that my Mom has been needling and torturing my father, while he just sits there and stews. That would be more accurate.
Here’s how it usually plays out: my Mom’s in a bad mood. Maybe she’s stressed about something, or something bad happened at work ‒ whatever reason. Instead of dealing with said bad mood by talking about it or working through it herself, she decides to project her anger onto somebody else: almost always, my Dad. She’ll find a pretext (it can be anything in the world). Let’s say he forgot to turn the TV off, or we’re running out of toilet paper, or he’s sweating a little more than usual. Doesn’t really matter, though the more trivial the better. Having chosen her detail, she then “casually” airs the grievance. “Huh! I wonder how much electricity it wastes when the TV is blaring to an empty room all day.” Or, “So did they finally release that toilet paper that reproduces itself?” Or, “I thought it was only pigs that rolled around in their own filth.” Always something demeaning and passive aggressive, which leaves my Dad two options: 1. Apologize meekly and receive in return, “No, no, it’s fine, it’s just (reiteration of the complaint through other humiliating jokes)”; 2. Defend himself and receive as payment an endless harangue whose general accusation is that he’s a monstrous creature who doesn’t care about anybody but himself and maybe his spoiled little son (me).
Accompanying these indoor-voice tirades (she always says that to my Dad when he even hints at defending himself: “Use your indoor voice”) is usually a foamy-mouthed screed that lumps me in with every single negative trait my Father has, and lumps both of us in with every single injustice ever committed by men against women throughout the history of human civilization. She’s allergic to leaving that out of it.
And it’s been getting worse. The ride up was brutal.
We left in the afternoon that Wednesday, and the traffic had taken mercy on us. My Dad was in a good mood. It was an overcast sky, the colors just perfect. I was in the backseat looking out the window and my Mom was in front, sitting stiff, like a wax sculpture. Hardly a word all morning.
My Dad starts whistling. After about ten seconds, my Mom starts whistling ‒ mocking my Dad, nothing but pure spite. Naturally, my Dad stops. I can see the back of his neck going red. A few minutes pass and I wonder if he’ll say something to her; or if she’ll say something to him, like, “I’m just trying to nap,” something to at least qualify her rudeness. But nothing. On the side of the highway, a few baby deer appear. “Oh, check it out!” I say, pressing my face to the window. We all look. My Dad says, “Oh, wow!” Even my Mom’s face brightens a little as we pass, at least it looks that way from the side. My Dad’s voice gets into a high cooing pitch and he says, “Little baby deer. Tick machines, yes, but...so cute.” He returns to his normal voice. “It’s funny, isn’t it? I was thinking about this the other day. Like...how endearing it is, for some reason, to watch animals just lounge around. Just seeing a cow out in the field or a lizard scurrying around. I don’t know why I feel so happy when I see that kind of thing.”
Now me, personally, that reaches me. I know exactly what he means and it seems sweet that he’s just saying it so openly. My Mom, on the other hand, chortles:
“Yeah, that’s really unique of you, thinking animals are cute. What a strange foible. You know, something I’ve noticed...whenever someone is acting like an animal is cute, they do baby voices and say silly things. Almost like they’re the ones who are really cute. We say the animal’s cute, but who’s making themselves the center of attention?”
I can see my Dad’s fingers tightening around the steering wheel, his knuckles going white. After a pause, he says, “Are you saying I’m making myself the center of attention?” She says nothing. “Hello?”
Without turning around or looking at me, she says, “Could you please tell your father I’m trying to take a nap? I’m very tired.”
Now at this point my blood is boiling. I know it’s not me, I know my Dad’s the one taking the abuse, but the fact that I have to sit here and watch ‒ the fact that she feels like this is okay ‒ I say, “We’re all fucking tired. Dad’s the one driving.”
And almost instantly, before my Dad even has a chance to respond, she says, “No, please, don’t reprimand your son for swearing at his mother. Silently approve.”
He says, “I wasn’t approving.” His voice is shaking. Then just as my Mom’s about to say, “Oh really? You weren’t...” a car merges right into our lane without warning. Dad slams the breaks and slams the horn. “HEY THANKS ASSHOLE! THANKS FOR SIGNALING! YOU COULDN’T KILL ANYONE OR ANYTHING!” and he punches the horn twice more.
A long silence after this. My Dad’s shoulders are heaving in the front and my Mom is deadly still ‒ I can see her jaw tensing and untensing.
I knew who he was really screaming at, and I knew my Mom knew, and I knew she was scared now and would stop torturing us. And it felt good to have that power back. I’ll admit it.
I get those brief moments of immense satisfaction when Dad finally stands up for himself, even if he takes it too far. But at the same time, whenever my Mom’s feeling down, whenever she doesn’t have a say in things or stops asserting herself, for whatever reason, I feel enormously guilty. That’s how it was right before she ran off this morning.
We woke up early; my Dad and I wanted to go to the beach to play with the new frisbee we’d gotten. When we proposed the idea, my Mom just nodded. Things had been so tense the night before, after the blowup, that this felt like the most we could ask for. She seemed soft and wilted and sad. On the way over to the beach, I tried to talk to her about the book I’d been reading, which she had recommended, but all she could muster were nods and sad smiles and, “Oh, really?” or, “Hmm.” Not rude, or bored. Just sad.
The water was vicious when we got there. Howling wind. We stood there in the sand with our chairs and towels and I can remember turning around and looking at my Mom, looking at her grave, soft face as she stared at the waves. “It looks pretty rough out there,” she said softly. I said, “You don’t wanna go in?” She hesitated. My Dad had already taken his shirt off and removed the frisbee from the bag. I kept watching my Mom. She turned and gave me a muted smile. “I’ll sit for a little bit. Give me a thumbs up if it’s warm.” For whatever reason, that made me want to throw my arms around her and weep into her chest and apologize. But we headed to the water, my Dad and I, and I looked over my shoulder and watched her seated figure receding.
About fifteen minutes in we lost the Frisbee, and it wasn’t even warm, but I wanted Mom to join us, so I turned around and lifted my hand with the thumbs-up.
In the distance, her chair was empty.
Had she gone for a stroll? Doubtful ‒ she’d taken her purse. Two hours walking up and down the beach like sniffing dogs, and we couldn’t find her. Had she gone into the water? Again ‒ she’d taken her purse. Her phone was still on. And someone had seen her ‒ someone had seen her walking away from the beach towards the highway. Maybe she’d hitched a ride. Maybe someone had picked her up. Maybe she’d just walked along until she reached the bus station, or an inn, or who knows what.
We couldn't entertain foul play. We really couldn’t entertain anything but the truth.
We’re in Nicholas. It’s 6:30 PM, and crowded, and my Dad’s driving; we’re crawling through the traffic. Tourists always flood in on the weekends here. This is where my Mom likes to visit. My Dad thinks we might see her cooling off in one of the stores or that at least someone else might have seen her.
I’m staring out the window. We’re passing slowly enough that I can examine every face on the sidewalk. I’m scanning for her short stocky figure, or her long brown hair, or her curved nose, or her big sad eyes. Suddenly everybody looks like her. My Dad clears his throat.
“Do you wanna...call her again? Just see?”
I’ve called my Mom a dozen times now. Literally. Twelve phone calls, between this morning and this evening, and about thirty texts. Every time, it rings, six times, all the way to the answering machine, and she never picks up. She doesn’t block the call, and she doesn’t turn her phone off. She just lets it ring.
“Why don’t...maybe if you tried calling her this time?” I offer.
My Dad’s called her three times. At least, as far as I know. Almost always, he has me do it. I say, “I mean...just...maybe if you called she’d pick up. Like...if it’s you she wants to talk to.”
He grimaces and drums his fingers on the steering wheel; takes a deep breath.
He connects his phone to the car speakers and dials. Suddenly my heart is pounding out of my throat and my arms are tingling. Please pick up. Please don’t pick up.
“Hi, sorry I couldn’t speak with you, leave a message and I’ll call you back as soon as I can! Thanks.”
The answering machine beeps. My Dad reaches out and flicks the left blinker as he turns. His mouth is hanging open but he doesn’t say anything. The static of the phone waits for us. When my Dad still says nothing, I reach out and press the “end call” button.
It isn’t until five minutes later that either of us says a word. My Dad looks at me for what feels like the first time all day and says, “She needs to hear your voice.”
Being alone with my Dad. It seems like we should be talking; all we should be doing is talking about what we think is going on and how this could’ve happened. Silence is wrong. That’s not the way our relationship has ever worked before.
It’s one of the things that annoys Mom. It really irks her how similar my Dad and I are, similar in our tastes and personalities, and how we can talk for hours, debating about baseball or movies or politics or anything else. I guess I can see how she’d feel left out, since neither of us talks to her that way, though it doesn’t seem fair that that’s something I should feel guilty about.
But the point is, we talk. I love my Dad. I love him so much, and I consider him a friend, which I think is really special. When we come up here every summer, we swim together, we play wiffle ball and frisbee together. We have so much fun. This is where he taught me how to ride waves. My Dad is one of the funniest and funnest people I know.
I keep thinking about that day after we arrived, the day my Dad was gone, and what my Mom was like. The sudden burst of cheer and goodwill. Painting the cabin. Only my Mom could’ve gotten me up at the break of dawn and put me to work painting during my summer vacation without me feeling salty. She put some music on the stereo, made us lemonade, and told me exactly what to do and how to do it; I’d never really painted before, and somehow it was fun. She was talking a lot as we did it, rambling from topic to topic ‒ but several times, she brought up Dad. And not at all in a bad way ‒ how she hoped he’d like how the cabin turned out. How they’d picked out the color together and how funny it was that my Dad always liked that color on things (it was some kind of grey). How hard he’s been working and how he deserved a nice surprise. Every time she’d make a little mistake, like getting some of the paint on the shingles, she’d say, “Ahhh, I hope your Father isn’t too miffed about this!”
I remember her calling me pet names. I remember how satisfied she looked painting, how immersed in the work. I remember seeing her there, up on the ladder, the afternoon sun shining down on her.
We’re making fools of ourselves. That’s what we’re doing.
Store to store, all the places my Mom liked ‒ that little antique furniture store, the old used book shop, the jewelry store, the watercolor art gallery ‒ we walk in like some veteran-rookie detective team and scan the place for any signs of my Mom (always none); then my Dad works up the courage to talk to the clerk and asks him/her if s/he has happened to see a middle-aged woman yea high with shoulder-length brown hair and green eyes passing through. Met with complete befuddlement, he pulls up several pictures of this woman on his phone and shows the clerk the pictures. He asks again if they’ve seen his wife while they grow even more confused and embarrassed and vaguely scared. You can see it on the tip of their tongues, “Have you….called the police?” “Is she...running away from you?” But nobody’s rude enough to ask aloud. Then they look down at me and see that I’m clearly with this distraught man, am clearly his son, in fact, and am clearly a) humiliated, and b) also profoundly disturbed by the missing mom situation. At which point this glint of pity flashes in their eyes, and I have to do everything in my power to stop myself from leaping over the counter and breaking their necks.
My Dad wanted us to split up to cover more ground; I did a pretty manipulative thing and told him that I didn’t want to lose sight of him (having just lost my Mom when I turned my back, after all), so we’re in it together. The real reason is that I know I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to play detective with these clerks by myself. It’s shameful, but it’s true. I know what would happen: I’d go up to the counters and just freeze and stutter and end up asking where the bathroom is. I just don’t have it in me.
Every time we step through the doors of these shops, I remember my Mom ‒ how cute she thought the little painting of the crab at the watercolor gallery was, how she’d go from necklace to necklace at the jewelry store and shake her head at the prices, how she’d always remind my Dad of some piece of furniture he’d refused to buy her at the antique store, which was apparently far superior to any other piece of furniture currently or ever in stock. I feel sick remembering these things.
We step into “Flaky Pages”: basically a closet that happens to have some used books in it. At the counter stands a man who appears to be about 217 years old. My Dad pulls out his phone and mutters his usual spiel about his missing wife; I turn away and feel the back of my neck burn. For a good minute the old shopkeeper examines the photo of my Mom, which shows her sitting on the beach and almost smiling. He runs his wrinkled fingers across his lips and nods.
“You’ve seen her? She was here?”
I whip around. My Dad clasps his hands on the counter and leans over it like a panting dog. There’s a sinking sensation somewhere in me. The old man nods.
“She came in here a few hours ago. Wasn’t here for long, but she got seven books I think it was. Just seemed to kind of grab them off the shelf at random.”
And then, after processing this for a moment, my Dad asks the most pitiful question he can muster:
“Do you know where she went when she left?”
I wonder if she’s afraid. If she’s alone. I don’t know. I only have a few theories, weak ones: that she could’ve been seeing somebody all this time. That something’s been going on, and now she’s left to join this other guy. It’s possible. I can’t rule it out. Maybe they’d planned it all out, and he’s the one who picked her up from the beach.
Or maybe she really did just up and leave. Completely impromptu, all alone. Maybe she just walked down the highway and hitchhiked somewhere. The bus station isn’t too far from the beach. Anything is possible. The world is enormous.
The sun is coming down. It can get lonely out here when it’s dark. It can get scary. Our property sits in the middle of nowhere. In the spirit of tradition and adventure, we’ve always “camped out” in tents on the grass, even since the cabin was built; it’s supposed to add to the fun. The fact is, I don’t have the heart to fess up that it frightens me sometimes. I try to take it in stride.
The night before my Dad came back from his business trip ‒ the night before they fought ‒ I went out into the woods. I was trying to text this girl I’m friends with, but there was no service. I unzipped the tent and stepped out into the night. Total darkness besides the few stars which shone through the clouds blanketing the sky. There’s a path that leads out from our property into the woods, a narrow dirt path, completely unlit.
The light was off in my Mom’s tent. An eerie, windy silence all around me. I went off down the path. Still no signal. I was staring into the light of my phone, waiting for the bars to appear, step by step, completely oblivious to my surroundings, when the phone died in my hands. The stars had disappeared behind the clouds. The trees were thick on either side of me. No light from the land, no light down the path.
I was standing in darkness.
It struck me like lightning ‒ the terror. I felt my heart pounding. I felt my lungs constricting. I was alone out there.
Then: a scream.
A piercing scream from our property. My Mom’s. She was screaming. I stood there blinking; I’ll be honest, for a sick moment, I had the impulse to just run, to escape whatever it was that had attacked my Mom. Something terrible was happening, and my heart knew it. But then I heard, more distinctly, that she was calling for me. She was screaming my name, not for help, but to find me. “WHERE ARE YOU?!”
I bolted back down the path. When I arrived panting at our property after about two minutes, I saw her standing in the middle of the field by the cabin, her hands cupped over her mouth, heaving for another scream.
She stopped as she saw me. We marched towards each other and instinctively I threw my arms around her. “Where did you go?!” She was in tears, and I was too.
We went to the cabin together and got warm and turned on all the lights. My Mom was pacing. “It would’ve helped if you’d turned your light off! This is not the place to be alone. I see your tent, your light’s on, it’s still pretty early, you’re AWOL. Don’t blame an old woman. Agh! I’ve always been raw nerves. Don’t know what it is, growing up in a city probably. Don’t you feel that way? Weren’t you freaked out out there?”
Of course I had been. But I was still so choked with fear and relief that the words wouldn’t come; I just smiled and nodded.
“What were you doing out there anyway?!”
“I needed to fart.”
She laughed at that. She ran her fingers through my hair and shook her head.
We ended up bringing our beddings into the cabin and sleeping in there for the night. I never knew the land could feel so safe.
The land. It’s sunset. We pull down the gravel path and see the tents and the cabin. Absolutely nothing gained from our inquiries in Nicholas. Why in the world would any shopkeeper have known what my Mom’s runaway plans were?
I think my Dad is slipping. All day, not a word, but ever since we’ve left the bookshop, he’s been rambling on and on: one minute he’s veering towards the casual, talking about how difficult it must be to maintain a business in a town like this; the next he’s talking about how absurd it is that Mom thinks she can just disappear, as if we won’t find her, as if there isn’t a job and a life waiting for her back home; the next (when he seems to remember that I’m in the car), he’s running through memories of all the good times we’ve had here, memories of me as a child, doing silly things, having fun.
When we finally turn into the land, we step out of the car and look around. He’s thinking maybe she came back here. This was the first place we went when we left the beach, after running up and down it and calling her name for two hours, and there was no sign of her then, but maybe she’s come to her senses, maybe she’s returned now. The first time we looked around we called for her over and over, but now we’re silent. We unzip the tents and don’t even bother closing them. We check the bathroom, we yank back the shower curtain. We scour the cabin. I even get flat on my chest and look under the beds. Everything that belonged to her is where she left it: her suitcase, her clothes, her books.
My Dad’s hands are shaking. He stalks to the kitchen and I follow. An impulse seizes me: I need to stop being weird. I need to comfort him, this is the woman’s husband, this is the adult, this is someone lost and confused without any idea of what to do. This is my father. I need to hug him and ask him if he’s okay. Not once have I asked him that. Not once have I hugged him or even touched him.
He flicks on the lamps in the cook shack and looks around. The faucet drips. Everything is where it should be. As I begin to lift my arms to move in on him, my Dad grabs the drying rack from beside the sink, clattering with glass plates and bowls. One by one, he takes these out and hurls them to the ground ‒ plate, bowl, mug, plate, plate, silverware, bowl ‒ the shards shatter and careen across the floor, deafening. My Dad isn’t even grunting or making a sound. I stare at him. I know my heart is racing. I know my face is pale and my eyes wide.
Did he know I was trying to hug him?
Yesterday we got hit by a downpour. Friday, the 27th, hours of rain and no end in sight. I don’t mind days like that, though. There’s something nice about being cooped up on the land with the rain pattering on the fly of the tent or the roof of the cabin. You can relax and listen and read a book or watch a movie.
Mom and Dad and I were all in the cabin and we’d decided to play cribbage. My Dad had gotten back from Ponten that morning looking tired but happy to see us, thrilled to see our paint job on the cabin. My Mom had greeted him warmly; she was acting the way I love it when she acts, happy and loving and sweet. Not torturing him and putting him down, but teasing him. It was around 3:00 when we were all in our own corners in the cabin, silent, me on my computer, my Mom reading, my Dad staring out the window at the rain. He turned around and grinned and said, “How bout some cribbage?”
I looked to my Mom first for her reaction; she turned a page in her book and glanced up as if considering.
“I’d be down,” I offered.
“Mom?” my Dad pressed. “Little cribbage? Cribbers? Cribberino? The crib of bage?” He said this doing a ridiculous dance-walk towards her, which made us both laugh.
My Mom sighed and closed her book. “Hasn’t it been so nice just sitting here in silence? All being alone with our thoughts? Reading?”
“Cribrage? Ribcage? Cribbles?”
We pulled the tiny table up to the bed my mom was sitting on and my Dad and I grabbed chairs. Three-player cribbage with a card going into the crib from the deck each hand. We were all in a giggly mood. Lots of teasing and joking, Dad playing the goofball, my Mom with the sharp tongue, me way too competitive. All an act, really, each of our parts. I definitely played up my own frustration when a hand didn’t go my way, and my Dad was obviously putting on his whole, “Come on guys it’s not about who wins” routine, and my Mom was basically doing standup. She can be so funny when she doesn’t mean to hurt.
At first, we all stayed about neck-and-neck, with usually one of us passing the other two every hand, no consistent person in first place. Then, right around when our pieces were rounding the first corner, my Mom got a 16-point hand followed by a 12-point hand and completely left us in the dust. Secretly pleased, I went off, “Are you FUCKING kidding me? Is this real? Fuck this game. FUCK this game, it’s all luck. No skill whatsoever.”
My Mom laughed, “Ohhh, look at that. Classic Daddy move. If you’re not good at it, it’s not worth anybody’s time, right?”
“Excuse me. Excuse me. I am in a complete state of zen right now,” my Dad objected over her laughter. “First place? Last place? It matters not!” He winked at me, “You could learn a thing or two from your old man.”
Mom scoffed, “About how to play cribbage poorly.”
She was definitely in even brighter spirits kicking our butts. Slowly but surely, though, as the game went on, my Dad started to catch up. A string of really good hands on his end and some poor ones on hers. She played it off cool and detached, but I could tell that it did bother her to be losing her position. Her barbs became sharper. Her face would get red as he laughed and whooped and danced around the room, though she still did giggle and roll her eyes and even pretend to slap him with her cards.
Then my Dad passed her. We were getting towards the end of the board by that point, and were pegging. Mom leads off with a seven. “Quinze pour deux!” my Dad cries, throwing down his eight. Two spaces up, now he’s tied with Mom. I’ve only got one card left, a four, and I throw that down for nineteen. My Mom sucks the air in through her teeth as she throws her six down, muttering “twenty-five.” My Dad grins and gently tosses his six on the center of the table. “31 for two, my dear, and let’s add on another two for the pair of sixes right there, so that is, in total, let’s see, what is that? Four? Is that four spaces ahead? Is this a come-from-behind we’re seeing here? Is that what’s happening?!”
My Mom sweeps her hands over the table and drags the cards together to shuffle, grinning angrily, not saying a word. My Dad turns to me and starts whispering loudly, “Your mother gets upset sometimes when she doesn’t win things, so let’s not talk about it. I think it might be a sore spot.”
She spits out a laugh and continues to shuffle, staring only at the cards. “Right. It’s funny, isn’t it? How much it would genuinely mean to your father to win this game? Always remember, sweetie, that competitiveness is rooted in one thing: insecurity. Getting fat? Stuck in a dead-end job? Friendless? Given up on all your dreams? Put it in a card game! We have to give him his little victories, you know?”
And only here does she deign to look up from her cards, with an embarrassed but mischievous smile, like she’s just done another tease. My Dad was laughing at first, and even chuckling at the getting fat bit, but by the end he’s completely silent. I can feel him watching her. This feels like it’s happening for a very long time. It’s hot. It’s hard to breathe.
“What?” I hear my Mom say defensively with a laugh, though you can tell she knows what she’s done. “Come on. I’m kidding, it’s a joke.”
My Dad says nothing. He doesn’t seem to be moving. I glance up at my Mom, whose smile is by now a Herculean effort. “Oh, don’t be a baby. What is this, the silent treatment?”
“You can’t take a joke?”
My Dad looks just like he did right before he cursed out that driver. Suddenly I’m terribly afraid. The pretense of lightness dies on my Mom’s face. She’s angry now too. She’s angry because she knows she hurt his feelings and she can’t stand that, she can’t stand to be in the wrong. She says, “No, go ahead. Let’s ruin a perfectly fun game...”
“I didn’t ruin anything.”
“...cuz you’re mad that I might beat you.”
I can’t stop myself, “You’re the one who’s mad that he’s winning! He wasn’t mad at you at all!”
“Oh, great, let’s all gang up, let’s all gang up on Mom! She can’t tell a joke! Bitch Mom always bringing everybody down! Drag me up to this fucking backwater whether I want to or not, leave me here with full responsibility for your son when you have shit to do, guilt me into doing your work for you. I forgot who wears the pants! The man that dragged us all up, like he does every single year, ‘Oh, no, we GOTTA go to the property!’ Even though my Mom just passed away and it would’ve been nice to spend time with my FAMILY! To GRIEVE!”
My Dad stood up at this point and began pacing around the room. My Mom stood too and I just sat there watching them, back and forth. Mom kept on, “Oh, he’s pacing now! Watch out everybody, he’s pacing!”
“I want you to stop this,” very softly.
“Oh, I’m sorry! I forgot my job was to lap up your shit and call it ice cream!”
It happened in one swift motion ‒ my Dad leaned down, grabbed a lamp off the floor, yanked it so hard the wire came out of its socket, and hurled the lamp at my Mother. She screamed and ducked and threw up her hands. The lamp soared a few feet above her head and collided with the wall, tearing the shade and shattering the bulb.
My Dad was panting, nothing but hate in his eyes as he stared at her crouched figure, so clearly wishing he could throw more lamps. My Mom was shaking. She wasn’t just trembling, she was shaking. Her face had gone pale. I waited for that fury to ebb from my father’s expression. I waited for his apology. I waited to open my eyes and wake up in my tent with my real parents.
Movement. My Dad marched over to the door, grabbed his raincoat off the coat rack, stepped outside the cabin, and slammed the door behind him. Off through the rain he stalked then, under the grey sky, and got in the car, and drove off. We could hear it, the engine revving and the wheels running down the gravel. We were alone.
It’s a bar and grill. There’s a cheeseburger on my plate, with two chunks bitten out and little teeth marks. My Dad’s plate is empty and smeared with ketchup and grease. A pint glass on the table beside it. Little bits of foam lingering on the rim. He’s off at the other end of the restaurant, standing by the old-timey jukebox, wavering over it. I can see the quarter sliding through his fingers and his mouth hanging open as he contemplates.
Finally, he chooses his song and returns to me with another pint clasped in his left fist. He’s drunk. I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen my father drunk before. Maybe at my cousin’s wedding a few years ago. He smiles at me, a crooked, sly smile that quickly turns sad. It’s night now, just past 9:00. Neither one of us had the energy to cook something up on the land. We’re here for dinner.
“You’re quiet,” he says, sounding hurt.
“Sorry. I’m just…I’m just stressed.”
He nods. Yeah. Yeah, it is stressful. I wish I could keep the conversation going, and consider the options: “How are you feeling?” (how do you think, jackass), “What are you gonna do if we can’t find Mom?” (too pessimistic and pushy, like I expect him to have it all figured out), “It’s gonna be okay, Dad” (patronizing and what basis do I have to say that). So instead I finally land on, “What song did you choose?”
He tilts his head back and croons, “Cupid, draw back your bow.” I force a laugh. He takes a long sip of his drink and stares at me. I’ve been invisible all day and now he’s staring and I don’t like it. He wipes the saliva from his lips. “You notice how your Mom never drinks? Yeah. It’s a resolution of hers. Cuz her own mom drank like a racehorse pisses. I saw it. She was ugly, that woman. Ugly and mean. Family gatherings she’d just sit on the couch knocking back entire bottles of cab sav by herself and spewing hate at everybody until she fell asleep. Really bad. That’s what it was like for your Mom, you know, growing up. Raised by an alcoholic. This is the woman she grieves. This is the woman she doesn’t wanna be up here for. ‘Oh, I need to grieve my shitty alcoholic trainwreck of a mother who brought nothing but misery into my life. And instead of facing that, I’m gonna project all of my anger onto you, and resent you for it.’” He smiles ruefully and shakes his head, taking another drink. An enormous wave of pity washes over me for my mother. And for him too. For both of them. I love them so much. I love them so, so much and they hate each other and they’re in so much pain.
I recognize Cooke’s voice, the song my Dad selected. My Dad does too, he perks up and closes his eyes.
What my Mom did when my Dad drove off and left us alone in the cabin that night is curl up into a ball on the floor and softly weep; that lasted about two minutes, during which I stood rooted in my spot and for some reason couldn’t bring myself to do what I wanted to do: go over to her, fold her into my arms, stroke her hair. After the two or so minutes passed, she stood up. And she looked at me. And in retrospect, when I close my eyes and envision that expression, it seems very much like what she was saying was, “Goodbye, sweetheart.” And that’s as close as I’ll ever get.
I didn’t know what to say. She walked over to her bedside table and grabbed her purse. Slowly, deliberately, she zipped it up. Then she looked at me again, and she said, “Sweetie?” and then she paused. And she just kept staring at me for a long time.
“Yeah?” I said.
“Do you want to come with me?”
I didn’t know what she meant. When I said nothing, her face twisted a little in pain. She walked out of the cabin into the rain, leaving the door open for me to follow. She was headed towards her tent. I came at her heels, in the downpour. “Mom?” She unzipped the tent and stepped inside, and then I heard the sound of something else unzipping: her suitcase. I realized then what was happening. She started stuffing her clothes into the suitcase, pell-mell.
“Mom? What are you doing?”
There were tears in her eyes. She closed them and hunched over. “Sweetheart….I can’t. You have to understand. He can’t do that kind of thing. He can’t do it.”
“He can’t! I don’t deserve that! How can you not see it?! Sweetheart, I love you so much,I don’t understand how you can ‒ you don’t know who your Father is! He’s not what you think he is! I have to sleep next to him, I have to be with him every day, I’m supposed to just ‒ I won’t! Sweetheart!”
“Deserve it!? You don’t deserve it? What does he deserve? He’s ‒ he’s your husband, he’s my Dad! Do you even have any idea? Do you have any idea what you’re like with him, how you treat him!? What do we deserve, Mom!? I mean ‒ I mean you hate him, you just hate him for no reason, and I don’t know why, and I don’t even know if you know why, honestly, I mean it’s just so ‒ it’s fucked up! You shit on him, Mom, you put him down all the time, what do you expect!? Do you think I don’t love you!? I don’t want you to be miserable, I don’t want you to be afraid! I want you to be happy! But I don’t see why you attack him and push him! If you just stopped ‒ why can’t you just stop!”
This all said with tears coming down my face too. But she’d stopped crying then. Her face was pale. Her face was pale and she was seated on the canvas. The suitcase sat open with clothes spilling out like a dissected pig. There was no anger in her eyes. There was nothing. I crouched over and stepped inside the tent. I put my arms around her and pulled her into me and held her tight.
Super 8 Motel. Just two minutes from the restaurant. My Father’s drunkenness and my inability to drive brought us here. No way we could’ve made it back to the land.
I haven’t been in one of these places in probably seven or eight years. It’s 1:00 in the morning. I’ve been lying in the bed by the air conditioner and staring at the dark sloping contours of my Dad’s sleeping figure. I don’t know who this man is. I don’t know who I am. I don’t know who my Mom is or ever was, or ever will be now. Her disappearance into a memory is inevitable. I will never see her again. In 10 hours, we’ll call the police, and they’ll go scouting for her, just as we have, and they’ll see there’s no foul play here, and they’ll find no bodies washed up in the ocean, and they’ll find no note buried under any stones, and they’ll tell us, simply, “There’s nothing we can do.” And we’ll have to swallow that.
She told me. That’s the thing. She said it right to my face, what would happen. And I did nothing.
My father screams. His body spasms on the bed. I watch him as he sits up and pants and scans the darkness. As he glances my way I close my eyes, so he won’t see them shimmering. I suddenly feel a deep revulsion towards him. He continues to pant. The sheets rustle. After a few moments, a wheezing sound. He’s in tears. I know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking she should be here to hold him. He cries and cries and I have to wait for him to finish, it feels like an hour, for him to finish and finally stop creaking around on the bed.
When he finally starts snoring again, I go outside and take my phone with me.
I’m on the balcony. The moon is out and the clouds have cleared. The wind is cool.
I stare at my Mom’s name on the glowing phone. I dial it. I wait.