On a summer evening in 1975, my mother turned to my father and said: “Have you ever made love in the ocean?”
And he said, “No.”
“Neither have I,” my mother said. “Let’s pretend it is the ocean and that I am going away and we might never see each other again.”
The next day she left for her father’s cabin in New Hampshire.
With the camera my parents gave me, I took dozens of candids of my family. So many that my father forced me to choose which rolls I thought should be developed. As the cost of my obsession mounted, I began keeping two boxes in my closet. “Rolls to be sent out” and “Rolls to hold back.” It was, my mother said, the only hint of any organizational skills I possessed.
I loved the way the burned-out flashcubes of the Kodak Instamatic marked a moment that had passed, one that would now be gone forever except for a picture. When they were spent, I took the cubed four-corner flashbulbs and passed them from hand to hand until they cooled. The broken filaments of the flash would turn a molten marble blue or sometimes smoke the thin glass black. I had rescued the moment by using my camera and in that way had found a way to stop time and hold it. No one could take that image away from me because I owned it.
That same summer, Lindsey or Buckley or my father would open the front door and find a casserole or a bundt cake on the front stoop. Sometimes an apple pie-my father’s favorite. The food was unpredictable. The casseroles Mrs. Stead made were horrible. The bundt cakes Mrs. Gilbert made were overly moist but bearable. The apple pies from Ruana: heaven on Earth.
In his study during the long nights after my mother left, my father would try to lose himself by rereading passages from the Civil War letters of Mary
Chestnut to her husband. He tried to let go of any blame, of any hope, but it was impossible. He did manage a small smile once.
“Ruana Singh bakes a mean apple pie,” he wrote in his notebook. In the fall he picked up the phone one afternoon to hear Grandma Lynn.
“Jack,” my grandmother announced, “I am thinking of coming to stay.” My father was silent, but the line was riddled with his hesitation.
“I would like to make myself available to you and the children. I’ve been knocking around in this mausoleum long enough.”
“Lynn, we’re just beginning to start over again,” he stammered. Still, he couldn’t depend on Nate’s mother to watch Buckley forever. Four months after my mother left, her temporary absence was beginning to take on the feel of permanence.
My grandmother insisted. I watched her resist the remaining slug of vodka in her glass. “I will contain my drinking until” – she thought hard here-“after five o’clock, and,” she said, “what the hell, I’ll stop altogether if you should find it necessary.”
“Do you know what you’re saying?”
My grandmother felt a clarity from her phone hand down to her pump-encased feet. “Yes, I do. I think.”
It was only after he got off the phone that he let himself wonder, Where will we PUT her? It was obvious to everyone. By December 1975, a year had passed since Mr. Harvey had packed his bags, but there was still no sign of him. For a while, until the tape dirtied or the paper tore, store owners kept a scratchy sketch of him taped to their windows. Lindsey and Samuel walked in the neighborhood or hung out at Hal’s bike shop. She wouldn’t go to the diner where the other kids went. The owner of the diner was a law and order man. He had blown up the sketch of George Harvey to twice its size and taped it to the front door. He willingly gave the grisly details to any customer who asked-young girl, cornfield, found only an elbow.
Finally Lindsey asked Hal to give her a ride to the police station. She wanted to know what exactly they were doing.
They bid farewell to Samuel at the bike shop and Hal gave Lindsey a ride through a wet December snow.
From the start, Lindsey’s youth and purpose had caught the police off guard. As more and more of them realized who she was, they gave her a wider and wider berth. Here was this girl, focused, mad, fifteen. Her breasts were perfect small cups, her legs gangly but curved, her eyes like flint and flower petals.
While Lindsey and Hal waited outside the captain’s office on a wooden bench, she thought she saw something across the room that she recognized. It was on Detective Fenerman’s desk and it stood out in the room because of its color. What her mother had always distinguished as Chinese red, a harsher red than rose red, it was the red of classic lipsticks, rarely found in nature. Our mother was proud of her ability to wear Chinese red, noting each time she tied a particular scarf around her neck that it was a color even Grandma Lynn dared not wear.
“Hal,” she said, every muscle tense as she stared at the increasingly familiar object on Fenerman’s desk.
“Do you see that red cloth?” “Yes.”
“Can you go and get it for me?”
When Hal looked at her, she said: “I think it’s my mother’s.”
As Hal stood to retrieve it, Len entered the squad room from behind where Lindsey sat. He tapped her on the shoulder just as he realized what Hal was doing. Lindsey and Detective Fenerman stared at each other.
“Why do you have my mother’s scarf?”
He stumbled. “She might have left it in my car one day.”
Lindsey stood and faced him. She was clear-eyed and driving fast toward the worst news yet. “What was she doing in your car?”
“Hello, Hal,” Len said.
Hal held the scarf in his hand. Lindsey grabbed it away, her voice growing angry. “Why do you have my mother’s scarf?”
And though Len was the detective, Hal saw it first-it arched over her like a rainbow-Prismacolor understanding. The way it happened in algebra class or English when my sister was the first person to figure out the sum of x or point out the double entendres to her peers. Hal put his hand on Lindsey’s shoulder to guide her. “We should go,” he said. And later she cried out her disbelief to Samuel in the back room of the bike shop. When my brother turned seven, he built a fort for me. It was something the two of us had said we would always do together and something my father could not bring himself to do. It reminded him too much of building the tent with the disappeared Mr. Harvey.
A family with five little girls had moved into Mr. Harvey’s house. Laughter traveled over into my father’s study from the built-in pool they had poured the spring after George Harvey ran. The sound of little girls-girls to spare.
The cruelty of it became like glass shattering in my father’s ears. In the spring of 1976, with my mother gone, he would shut the window of his den on even the hottest evenings to avoid the sound. He watched his solitary little boy in among the three pussy-willow bushes, talking to himself.
Buckley had brought empty terra-cotta pots from the garage. He hauled the boot scraper out from where it lay forgotten at the side of the house.
Anything to make walls for the fort. With the help of Samuel and Hal and Lindsey, he edged two huge boulders from the front of the driveway into the backyard. This was such an unexpected windfall that it prompted Samuel to ask, “How are you going to make a roof?”
And Buckley looked at him in wonder as Hal mentally scanned the contents of his bike shop and remembered two scrap sheets of corrugated tin he had leaning up against the back wall.
So one hot night my father looked down and didn’t see his son anymore. Buckley was nestled inside his fort. On his hands and knees, he would pull the terra-cotta pots in after him and then prop a board against them that reached almost up to the wavy roof. Just enough light came in to read by. Hal had obliged him and painted in big black spray paint letters KEEP OUT on one side of the plywood door.
Mostly he read the Avengers and the X-Men. He dreamed of being Wolverine, who had a skeleton made of the strongest metal in the universe and who could heal from any wound overnight. At the oddest moments he would think about me, miss my voice, wish I would come out from the house and pound on the roof of his fort and demand to be let in. Sometimes he wished Samuel and Lindsey hung out more or that my father would play with him as he once had. Play without that always-worried look underneath the smile, that desperate worry that surrounded everything now like an invisible force field. But my brother would not let himself miss my mother. He tunneled into stories where weak men changed into strong half-animals or used eye beams or magic hammers to power through steel or climb up the sides of skyscrapers. He was the Hulk when angry and Spidey the rest of the time. When he felt his heart hurt he turned into something stronger than a little boy, and he grew up this way. A heart that flashed from heart to stone, heart to stone. As I watched I thought of what Grandma Lynn liked to say when Lindsey and I rolled our eyes or grimaced behind her back. “Watch out what faces you make. You’ll freeze that way.”
One day, Buckley came home from the second grade with a story he’d written: “Once upon a time there was a kid named Billy. He liked to explore. He saw a hole and went inside but he never came out. The End.”
My father was too distracted to see anything in this. Mimicking my mother, he taped it to the fridge in the same place Buckley’s long-forgotten drawing of the Inbetween had been. But my brother knew something was wrong with his story. Knew it by how his teacher had reacted, doing a double take like they did in his comic books. He took the story down and
brought it to my old room while Grandma Lynn was downstairs. He folded it into a tiny square and put it inside the now-empty insides of my four-poster bed. On a hot day in the fall of 1976, Len Fenerman visited the large safety box in the evidence room. The bones of the neighborhood animals he had found in Mr. Harvey’s crawlspace were there, along with the lab confirmation of evidence of quicklime. He had supervised the investigation, but no matter how much they dug, or how deep, no other bones or bodies had been found on his property. The blood stain on the floor of his garage was my only calling card. Len had spent weeks, then months, poring over a xerox of the sketch Lindsey had stolen. He had led a team back into the field, and they had dug and then dug again. Finally they found an old Coke bottle at the opposite end of the field. There it was, a solid link: fingerprints matching Mr. Harvey’s prints, which were all over his house, and fingerprints matching those on my birth certificate. There was no question in his mind: Jack Salmon had been right from the beginning.
But no matter how hard he looked for the man himself, it was as if George Harvey had evaporated into thin air when he hit the property line. He could find no records with that name attached. Officially, he did not exist.
What he had left behind were his dollhouses. So Len called the man who sold them for him, and who took commissions from select stores, and the wealthy people who ordered replicas of their own homes. Nothing. He had called the makers of the miniature chairs, the tiny doors and windows with beveled glass and brass hardware, and the manufacturer of the cloth shrubs and trees. Nothing.
He sat down among the evidence at a barren communal desk in the basement of the station. He looked through the stack of extra fliers that my father had made up. He had memorized my face, but still he looked at them. He had come to believe that the best hope in my case might be the recent rise in development in the area. With all the land churning and changing, perhaps other clues would be found that would provide the answer he needed.
In the bottom of the box was the bag with my jingle-bell hat. When he’d handed it to my mother, she had collapsed on the rug. He still couldn’t pinpoint the moment he’d fallen in love with her. I knew it was the day he’d
sat in our family room while my mother drew stick figures on butcher paper and Buckley and Nate slept toe to toe on the couch. I felt sorry for him. He had tried to solve my murder and he had failed. He had tried to love my mother and he had failed.
Len looked at the drawing of the cornfield that Lindsey had stolen and forced himself to acknowledge this: in his cautiousness, he had allowed a murderer to get away. He could not shake his guilt. He knew, if no one else did, that by being with my mother in the mall that day he was the one to blame for George Harvey’s freedom.
He took his wallet out of his back pocket and laid down the photos of all the unsolved cases he had ever worked on. Among them was his wife’s. He turned them all face-down. “Gone,” he wrote on each one of them. He would no longer wait for a date to mark an understanding of who or why or how. He would never understand all the reasons why his wife had killed herself. He would never understand how so many children went missing, He placed these photos in the box with my evidence and turned the lights off in the cold room. But he did not know this:
In Connecticut on September 10, 1976, a hunter on his way back to his car saw something shiny on the ground. My Pennsylvania keystone charm.
Then he saw that the ground nearby had been partially dug up by a bear. Exposed by the bear were the unmistakable bones of a child’s foot. My mother made it through only one winter in New Hampshire before she got the idea of driving all the way to California. It was something she had always thought she would do but had never done. A man she met in New Hampshire had told her about the work to be had in wineries in the valleys above San Francisco. It was easy to get, it was physical, and it could be, if you wanted it to be, very anonymous. All three sounded good to her.
This man had also wanted to sleep with her, but she said no. By then, she knew this wasn’t the road out anymore. From the first night with Len in the innards of the mall she had known the two of them weren’t building anything. She could not even really feel him.
She packed her bags for California and sent cards to my brother and sister from every town she stopped in. “Hello, I’m in Dayton. Ohio’s state bird is
the cardinal.” “Reached the Mississippi last night at sunset. It certainly is a big river.”
In Arizona, when she was eight states beyond the farthest she had ever been, she paid for her room and brought a bucket of ice with her from the machine outside. The next day she would reach California, and to celebrate she had bought herself a bottle of champagne. She thought of what the man in New Hampshire had said, how he had spent one whole year scraping the mold out of the giant casks that held wine. He had lain flat on his back and had to use a knife to peel back the layers of mold. The mold had the color and consistency of liver, and no matter how hard he bathed he would still attract fruit flies for hours afterward.
She sipped champagne from a plastic cup and looked at herself in the mirror. She forced herself to look.
She remembered sitting in our living room then, with me and my sister, my brother and father, on the first New Year’s Eve that all five of us had stayed up. She had shaped the day around making sure Buckley got enough sleep.
When he woke up after dark he was sure that someone better than Santa would come that night. In his mind he held a big bang image of the ultimate holiday, when he would be transported to toyland,
Hours later, as he yawned and leaned into my mother’s lap and she finger-combed his hair, my father ducked into the kitchen to make cocoa and my sister and I served German chocolate cake. When the clock struck twelve and there was only distant screaming and a few guns shot into the air in our neighborhood, my brother was unbelieving. Disappointment so swiftly and thoroughly overtook him that my mother was at a loss for what to do. She thought of it as sort of an infant Peggy Lee’s “Is that all there is?” and then bawling.
She remembered my father had lifted Buckley up into his arms and started singing. The rest of us joined in. “Let ole acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind, should ole acquaintance be forgot and days of auld lang syne!”
And Buckley had stared at us. He captured the foreign words like bubbles floating above him in the air. “Lang syne?” he said with a look of wonder.
“What does that mean?” I asked my parents. “The old days,” my father said,
“Days long past,” my mother said. But then, suddenly, she had started pinching the crumbs of her cake together on her plate.
“Hey, Ocean Eyes,” my father said. “Where’d you go on us?”
And she remembered that she had met his question with a closing off, as though her spirit had a tap-twist to the right and she was up on her feet asking me to help her clean up. In the fall of 1976, when she reached California, she drove directly to the beach and stopped her car. She felt like she had driven through nothing but families for four days – squabbling families, bawling families, screaming families, families under the miraculous strain of the day by day- and she was relieved to see the waves from the windshield of her car. She couldn’t help thinking of the books she had read in college. The Awakening. And what had happened to one writer, Virginia Woolf. It all seemed so wonderful back then-filmy and romantic-stones in the pocket, walk into the waves.
She climbed down the cliffs after tying her sweater loosely around her waist. Down below she could see nothing but jagged rocks and waves. She was careful, but I watched her feet more than the view she saw-I worried about her slipping.
My mother’s desire to reach those waves, touch her feet to another ocean on the other side of the country, was all she was thinking of-the pure baptismal goal of it. Whoosh and you can start over again. Or was life more like the horrible game in gym that has you running from one side of an enclosed space to another, picking up and setting down wooden blocks without end? She was thinking reach the waves, the waves, the waves, and I was watching her feet navigate the rocks, and when we heard her we did so together-looking up in shock. It was a baby on the beach.
In among the rocks was a sandy cove, my mother now saw, and crawling across the sand on a blanket was a baby in knitted pink cap and singlet and boots. She was alone on the blanket with a stuffed white toy-my mother thought a lamb.
With their backs to my mother as she descended were a group of adults-very official and frantic-looking-wearing black and navy with cool slants to their hats and boots. Then my wildlife photographer’s eye saw the tripods and silver circles rimmed by wire, which, when a young man moved them left or right, bounced light off or on the baby on her blanket.
My mother started laughing, but only one assistant turned to notice her up among the rocks; everyone else was too busy. This was an ad for something, I imagined, but what? New fresh infant girls to replace your own? As my mother laughed and I watched her face light up, I also saw it fall into strange lines.
She saw the waves behind the girl child and how both beautiful and intoxicating they were-they could sweep up so softly and remove this girl from the beach. All the stylish people could chase after her, but she would drown in a moment-no one, not even a mother who had every nerve attuned to anticipate disaster, could have saved her if the waves leapt up, if life went on as usual and freak accidents peppered a calm shore.
That same week she found work at the Krusoe Winery, in a valley above the bay. She wrote my sister and brother postcards filled with the bright fragments of her life, hoping in a postcard’s limited space she would sound cheery.
On her days off, she would walk down the streets of Sausalito or Santa Rosa-tiny upscale towns where everyone was a stranger-and, no matter how hard she tried to focus on the hopeful unfamiliar, when she walked inside a gift shop or cafe the four walls around her would begin to breathe like a lung. She would feel it then, creeping up the side of her calves and into her gut, the onslaught, the grief coming, the tears like a small relentless army approaching the front lines of her eyes, and she would breathe in, taking a large gulp of air to try to stop herself from crying in a public place. She asked for coffee and toast in a restaurant and buttered it with tears. She went
into a flower shop and asked for daffodils, and when there were none she felt robbed. It was such a small wish-a bright yellow flower. The first impromptu memorial in the cornfield opened in my father the need for more. Yearly now, he organized a memorial, to which fewer and fewer neighbors and friends came. There were the regulars, like Ruth, and the Gilberts, but more and more the group was filled out by kids from the high school who, as time went by, knew only my name and even that only as a large dark rumor invoked as a warning to any student that might prove too much a loner. Especially girls.
Each time my name was said by these strangers it felt like a pinprick. It was not the pleasant sensation that it could be when my father said it or when Ruth wrote it in her journal. It was the sensation of being simultaneously resurrected and buried within the same breath. As if in an economics class I had been ushered over into a column of transmutable commodities: the Murdered. A few teachers, like Mr. Botte, remembered me as a real girl. Sometimes on his lunch hour he would go and sit in his red Fiat and think about the daughter he had lost to leukemia. In the distance, out past his window, the cornfield loomed. Often, he would say a prayer for me. In just a few short years, Ray Singh grew so handsome that a spell radiated from him when he walked into a crowd. His adult face had still not settled on him, but, now that he was seventeen, it was just around the corner. He exuded a dreamy asexuality that made him attractive to both men and women, with his long lashes and hooded eyelids, his thick black hair, and the same delicate features that were still a boy’s.
I would watch Ray with a longing different from that which I had for anyone else. A longing to touch and hold him, to understand the very body that he examined with the coldest of eyes. He would sit at his desk and read his favorite book-Gray’s Anatomy-and depending on what he was reading about he would use his fingers to palpate his carotid artery or his thumb to press down and follow the longest muscle in his body-the sar-torius, which ran from the outside of his hip to the inside of his knee. His thinness was a boon to him then, the bones and muscles clearly distinguished beneath the skin.
By the time he packed his bags for Penn, he had committed so many words and their definitions to memory that I grew worried. With all that, how could his mind contain anything else? Ruth’s friendship, his mother’s love, my memory would be pushed to the back as he made way for the eye’s crystalline lens and its capsule, the semicircular canals of the ear, or my favorite, the qualities of the sympathetic nervous system.
I need not have worried. Ruana cast about the house for something, anything, that her son might bring with him that was equal in heft and weight to Gray’s and that would, she hoped, keep the flower-gathering side of him alive. Without his knowing, she tucked the book of Indian poetry into his luggage. Inside was the long-forgotten photo of me. When he unpacked inside Hill House dormitory, my picture fell on the floor by his bed. Despite how he could dissect it-the vessels of the globe of my eye, the surgical anatomy of my nasal fossae, the light tincture of my epidermis-he could not avoid them, the lips he had once kissed. In June 1977, on the day of what would have been my graduation, Ruth and Ray were already gone. The day classes ended at Fairfax, Ruth moved to New York City with her mother’s old red suitcase full of new black clothes. Having graduated early, Ray was already at the end of his freshman year at Penn.
In our kitchen that same day, Grandma Lynn gave Buckley a book on gardening. She told him about how plants came from seeds. That radishes, which he hated, grew fastest, but that flowers, which he loved, could grow from seeds as well. And she began to teach him the names: zinnias and marigolds, pansies and lilacs, carnations and petunias, and morning glory vines.
Occasionally my mother called from California. My parents had hurried and difficult conversations. She asked after Buckley and Lindsey and Holiday. She asked how the house was holding up and whether there was anything he needed to tell her.
“We still miss you,” he said in December 1977, when the leaves had all fallen and been blown or raked away but even still, with the ground waiting to receive it, there had been no snow.
“I know that,” she said.
“What about teaching? I thought that was your plan.”
“It was” she conceded. She was on the phone in the office of the winery. Things had slowed up after the lunch crowd, but five limos of old ladies, three sheets to the wind, were soon due in. She was silent and then she said something that no one, least of all my father, could have argued with. “Plans change.”
In New York, Ruth was living in an old woman’s walk-in closet on the Lower East Side. It was the only thing she could afford, and she had no intention of spending much time there anyway. Daily she rolled her twin-sized futon into the corner so she could have a little floor space in which to dress. She visited the closet only once a day, and she never spent any time there if she could help it. The closet was for sleeping and having an address, a solid if tiny perch in the city.
She worked service bar and walked every inch of Manhattan on her off hours. I watched her pound the cement in her defiant boots, sure that women were being murdered wherever she went. Down in stairwells and up inside beautiful highrises. She would linger at streetlights and scan the facing street. She wrote small prayers in her journal at the cafes and the bars, where she stopped to use the bathroom after ordering the cheapest thing on the menu.
She had become convinced that she had a second sight that no one else had. She didn’t know what she would do with it, save taking copious notes for the future, but she had grown unafraid. The world she saw of dead women and children had become as real to her as the world in which she lived. In the library at Penn, Ray read about the elderly under the boldface heading “The Conditions of Death.” It described a study done in nursing homes in which a large percentage of patients reported to the doctors and nurses that they saw someone standing at the end of their bed at night.
Often this person tried to talk to them or call their name. Sometimes the patients were in such a high state of agitation during these delusions that they had to be given a sedative or strapped to their beds.
The text went on to explain that these visions were a result of small strokes that often preceded death. “What is commonly thought of by the layman as
the Angel of Death, when discussed at all with the patient’s family, should be presented to them as a small series of strokes compounding an already precipitous state of decline.”
For a moment, with his finger marking the place in the book, Ray imagined what it would be like if, standing over the bed of an elderly patient, remaining as open as he could to possibility, he might feel something brush past him as Ruth had so many years ago in the parking lot, Mr. Harvey had been living wild within the Northeast Corridor from the outlying areas of Boston down to the northern tips of the southern states, where he would go to find easier work and fewer questions and make an occasional attempt to reform. He had always liked Pennsylvania and had crisscrossed the long state, camping sometimes behind the 7-Eleven just down the local highway from our development, where a ridge of woods survived between the all-night store and the railroad tracks, and where he found more and more tin cans and cigarette butts each time he passed through. He still liked to drive close to the old neighborhood when he could. He took these risks early in the morning or late at night, when the wild pheasants that had once been plentiful still traversed the road and his headlights would catch the hollow glowing of their eye sockets as they skittered from one side of the road to the other. There were no longer teenagers and young children sent to pick blackberries just up to the edge of our development, because the old farm fence that had hung so heavily with them had been torn down to make room for more houses. He had learned to pick wild mushrooms over time and gorged on them sometimes when staying overnight in the overgrown fields of Valley Forge Park. On a night like this I saw him come upon two novice campers who had died after eating the mushrooms’ poisonous look-alikes. He tenderly stripped their bodies of any valuables and then moved on. Hal and Nate and Holiday were the only ones Buckley had ever allowed into his fort, The grass died underneath the boulders and when it rained, the insides of the fort were a fetid puddle, but it stayed there, though Buckley went there less and less, and it was Hal who finally begged him to make improvements.
“We need to waterproof it, Buck,” Hal said one day “You’re ten-that’s old enough to work a caulking gun.”
And Grandma Lynn couldn’t help herself, she loved men. She encouraged Buck to do what Hal said, and when she knew Hal would be coming to visit, she dressed up,
“What are you doing?” my father said one Saturday morning, lured out of his den by the sweet smell of lemons and butter and golden batter rising in pans.
“Making muffins,” Grandma Lynn said.
My father did a sanity check, staring at her. He was still in his robe and it was almost ninety degrees at ten in the morning, but she had pantyhose and makeup on. Then he noticed Hal in an undershirt out in the yard.
“My God, Lynn,” he said. “That boy is young enough …” “But he’s de-lec-ta-ble!”
My father shook his head and sat down at the kitchen table. “When will the love muffins be done, Mata Hari?”
In December 1981, Len did not want to get the call he got from Delaware, where a murder in Wilmington had been connected to a girl’s body found in 1976 in Connecticut. A detective, working overtime, had painstakingly traced the keystone charm in the Connecticut case back to a list of lost property from my murder,
“It’s a dead file,” Len told the man on the other end. “We’d like to see what you have.”
“George Harvey,” Len said out loud, and the detectives at neighboring desks turned toward him. “The crime was in December 1973. The murder victim was Susie Salmon, fourteen.”
“Any body for the Simon girl?”
“Salmon, like the fish. We found an elbow,” Len said.
“She have a family?” “Yes.”
“Connecticut has teeth. Do you have her dentals?” “Yes.”
“That may save the family some grief,” the man told Len,
Len trekked back to the evidence box he had hoped never to look at again. He would have to make a phone call to my family. But he would wait as long as possible, until he was certain the detective in Delaware had something.
For almost eight years after Samuel told Hal about the drawing Lindsey had stolen, Hal had quietly worked through his network of biker friends to track George Harvey down. But he, like Len, had vowed not to report anything until he was sure it might be a lead. And he had never been sure. When late one night a Hell’s Angel named Ralph Cichetti, who admitted freely he had spent some time in prison, said that he thought his mother had been killed by a man she rented a room to, Hal began asking his usual questions. Questions that held elements of elimination about height and weight and preoccupations. The man hadn’t gone by the name George Harvey, though that didn’t mean anything. But the murder itself seemed too different. Sophie Cichetti was forty-nine. She was killed in her home with a blunt object and her body had been found intact nearby. Hal had read enough crime books to know that killers had patterns, peculiar and important ways they did things. So as Hal adjusted the timing chain of Cichetti’s cranky Harley, they moved on to other topics, then fell silent. It was only when Cichetti mentioned something else that every hair on Hal’s neck stood up.
“The guy built dollhouses,” Ralph Cichetti said. Hal placed a call to Len.
I would lay these photographs down in my mind, those gathered from my constant watching, and I could trace how one thing-my death-connected these images to a single source. No one could have predicted how my loss
would change small moments on Earth. But I held on to those moments, hoarded them. None of them were lost as long as I was there watching. At Evensong one night, while Holly played her sax and Mrs. Bethel Utemeyer joined in, I saw him: Holiday, racing past a fluffy white Samoyed. He had lived to a ripe old age on Earth and slept at my father’s feet after my mother left, never wanting to let him out of his sight. He had stood with Buckley while he built his fort and had been the only one permitted on the porch while Lindsey and Samuel kissed. And in the last few years of his life, every Sunday morning, Grandma Lynn had made him a skillet-sized peanut butter pancake, which she would place flat on the floor, never tiring of watching him try to pick it up with his snout.
I waited for him to sniff me out, anxious to know if here, on the other side, I would still be the little girl he had slept beside. I did not have to wait long: he was so happy to see me, he knocked me down.
Years passed. The trees in our yard grew taller. I watched my family and my friends and neighbors, the teachers whom I’d had or imagined having, the high school I had dreamed about. As I sat in the gazebo I would pretend instead that I was sitting on the topmost branch of the maple under which my brother had swallowed a stick and still played hide-and-seek with Nate, or I would perch on the railing of a stairwell in New York and wait for Ruth to pass near. I would study with Ray. Drive the Pacific Coast Highway on a warm afternoon of salty air with my mother. But I would end each day with my father in his den,
At twenty-one Lindsey was many things I would never become, but I barely grieved this list anymore. Still, I roved where she roved. I collected my college diploma and rode on the back of Samuel’s bike, clinging on to him with my arms wrapped around his waist, pressing into his back for warmth .. .
Okay, it was Lindsey. I realized that. But in watching her I found I could get lost more than with anyone else.
On the night of their graduation from Temple University, she and Samuel rode his bike back to my parents’ house, having promised my father and Grandma Lynn repeatedly that they would not touch the champagne tucked
inside the bike s pannard until they reached the house. “After all, we’re college graduates!” Samuel had said. My father was soft in his trust with Samuel- years had gone by when the boy had done nothing but right by his surviving daughter.
But on the ride back from Philadelphia down Route 30, it began to rain. Lightly at first, small pinpricks flashing into my sister and Samuel at fifty miles per hour. The cool rain hit the hot dry tar of the road and lifted up smells that had been baked in all day under the hot June sun. Lindsey liked to rest her head between Samuel’s shoulder blades and take in the scent of the road and the scrappy shrubs and bushes on either side. She had been remembering how the breeze in the hours before the storm had filled all the white gowns of the graduating seniors as they stood outside Macy Hall.
Everyone looked poised, for just a moment, to float away.
Finally, eight miles away from the turnoff that led to our house, the rain grew heavy enough to hurt, and Samuel shouted back to Lindsey that he was going to pull off.
They passed into a slightly more overgrown stretch of road, the kind that existed between two commercial areas and that gradually, by accretion, would be eliminated by another strip mall or auto parts store, The bike wobbled but did not fall on the wet gravel of the shoulder. Samuel used his feet to help brake the bike, then waited, as Hal had taught him, for my sister to get off and step a few feet away before he got off himself.
He opened the visor of his helmet to yell to her. “This is no good,” he said, “I’m going to roll her under those trees.”
Lindsey followed behind him, the sound of rain hushed inside her padded helmet. They picked their way through the gravel and mud, stepping over branches and litter that had gathered at the side of the road. The rain seemed to be getting heavier still, and my sister was glad she had changed out of the dress she’d worn to commencement and into the leather pants and jacket that Hal had insisted on getting her despite her protests that she looked like a pervert.
Samuel wheeled the bike into the stand of oaks close to the road, and Lindsey followed. They had gone the week before to get haircuts at the same barber shop on Market Street, and though Lindsey’s hair was lighter and finer than Samuel’s, the barber had given them identical short, spiky cuts. Within a moment of removing their helmets their hair caught the large drops that filtered through the trees, and Lindsey’s mascara began to bleed. I watched as Samuel used his thumb to wipe the traces from Lindsey’s cheek. “Happy graduation” he said in the darkness, and stooped to kiss her.
Since their first kiss in our kitchen two weeks after my death, I had known that he was – as my sister and I had giggled with our Barbies or while watching Bobby Sherman on TV-her one and only. Samuel had pressed himself into her need, and the cement between the two of them had begun to set immediately. They had gone to Temple together, side by side. He had hated it and she had pushed him through. She had loved it and this had allowed him to survive.
“Let’s try and find the densest part of this underbrush,” he said. “What about the bike?”
“Hal will probably have to rescue us when the rain stops,” “Shit!” Lindsey said.
Samuel laughed and grabbed her hand to start walking. The moment they did, they heard the first thunderclap and Lindsey jumped. He tightened his hold on her. The lightning was in the distance still, and the thunder would grow louder on its heels. She had never felt about it the way I did. It made her jumpy and nervous. She imagined trees split down the middle and houses on fire and dogs cowering in basements throughout the suburbs.
They walked through the underbrush, which was getting soaked despite the trees. Even though it was the middle of the afternoon, it was dark except for Samuel’s safety light. Still they felt the evidence of people. Their boots crunched down on top of tin cans and pushed up against empty bottles. And then, through the thick weeds and darkness both of them saw the broken
window panes that ran along the top of an old Victorian house. Samuel shut off the safety light immediately.
“Do you think there’s someone inside?” Lindsey asked. “It’s dark.”
They looked at each other, and my sister said what they both were thinking. “It’s dry!”
They held hands in the heavy rain and ran toward the house as fast as they could, trying not to trip or slide in the increasing mud.
As they drew closer, Samuel could make out the steep pitch of the roof and the small wooden cross work that hung down from the gables. Most of the windows on the bottom floor had been covered over with wood, but the front door swung back and forth on its hinges, banging against the plaster wall on the inside. Though part of him wanted to stand outside in the rain and stare up at the eaves and cornices, he rushed into the house with Lindsey. They stood a few feet inside the doorway, shivering and staring out into the pre-suburban forest that surrounded them. Quickly I scanned the rooms of the old house. They were alone. No scary monsters lurked in corners, no wandering men had taken root.
More and more of these undeveloped patches were disappearing, but they, more than anything, had marked my childhood. We lived in one of the first developments to be built on the converted farmland in the area-a development that became the model and inspiration for what now seemed a limitless number-but my imagination had always rested on the stretch of road that had not been filled in with the bright colors of shingles and drainpipes, paved driveways and super-size mailboxes. So too had Samuel’s.
“Wow!” Lindsey said. “How old do you think this is?”
Lindsey’s voice echoed off the walls as if they stood alone in a church.
“Let’s explore,” said Samuel.
The boarded-up windows on the first floor made it hard to see anything, but with the help of Samuel’s safety light they could pick out both a fireplace and the chair rail along the walls.
“Look at the floor,” Samuel said. He knelt down, taking her with him. “Do you see the tongue and groove work? These people had more money than their neighbors.”
Lindsey smiled. Just as Hal cared only for the inner workings of motorcycles, Samuel had become obsessed with carpentry.
He ran his ringers over the floor and had Lindsey do it too. “This is a gorgeous old wreck/’ he said.
“Victorian?” Lindsey asked, making her best guess.
“It blows my mind to say this,” Samuel said, “but I think it’s gothic revival. I noticed cross-bracing on the gable trim, so that means it was after I860.”
“Look,” said Lindsey. In the center of the floor someone had once, long ago, set a fire.
“And that is a tragedy,” Samuel said.
“Why didn’t they use the fireplace? There’s one in every room.”
But Samuel was busy looking up through the hole the fire had burned into the ceiling, trying to make out the patterns of the woodwork along the window frames.
“Let’s go upstairs, ” he said.
“I feel like I’m in a cave,” said Lindsey as they climbed the stairs. “It’s so quiet in here you can barely hear the rain.”
Samuel bounced the soft side of his fist off the plaster as he went. “You could wall someone into this place.”
And suddenly it was one of those awkward moments that they had learned to let pass and I lived to anticipate. It begged a central question. Where was I? Would I be mentioned? Brought up and discussed? Usually now the answer was a disappointing no. It was no longer a Susie-fest on Earth.
But something about the house and the night-markers like graduations and birthdays always meant that I was more alive, higher up in the register of thoughts-made Lindsey dwell on me more in that moment than she normally might. Still, she didn’t mention it. She remembered the heady feeling she had had in Mr. Harvey’s house and that she had often felt since-that I was with her somehow, in her thoughts and limbs-moving with her like a twin.
At the top of the stairs they found the entrance to the room they had stared up at.
“I want this house,” Samuel said. “What?”
“This house needs me, I can feel it.”
“Maybe you should wait until the sun comes out to decide,” she said. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.
“Samuel Heckler,” my sister said, “fixer of broken things.” “One to talk,” he said.
They stood for a moment in silence and smelled the damp air coming through the chimney and flooding the room. Even with the sound of rain, Lindsey still felt hidden away, tucked safely in an outside corner of the world with the one person she loved more than anyone else.
She took his hand, and I traveled with them up to the doorway of a small room at the very front. It jutted out over what would be the entrance hall of the floor below and was octagonal in shape.
“Oriels,” Samuel said. “The windows”-he turned to Lindsey-“when they’re built out like that, like a tiny room, that’s called an oriel,”
“Do they turn you on?” Lindsey asked, smiling.
I left them in the rain and darkness. I wondered if Lindsey noticed that when she and Samuel began to unzip their leathers the lightning stopped and the rumble in the throat of God-that scary thunder-ceased. In his den, my father reached out to hold the snow globe in his hand. The cold glass against his fingers comforted him, and he shook it to watch the penguin disappear and then slowly be uncovered by the gently falling snow.
Hal had made it back from the graduation ceremonies on his motorcycle but instead of calming my father-providing some assurance that if one motorcycle could maneuver the storm and deliver its rider safe to his door, another one could too-it seemed to stack the probabilities in the reverse in his mind.
He had taken what could be called a painful delight in Lindsey’s graduation ceremony. Buckley had sat beside him, dutifully prompting him when to smile and react. He often knew when, but his synapses were never as quick now as normal people’s – or at least that was how he explained it to himself. It was like reaction time in the insurance claims he reviewed. There was an average number of seconds for most people between when they saw something coming-another car, a rock rolling down an embankment – and when they reacted. My father’s response times were slower than most, as if he moved in a world where a crushing inevitability had robbed him of any hope of accurate perception. Buckley tapped on the half-open door of my father’s den.
“Come in,” he said.
“They’ll be okay, Dad.” At twelve, my brother had become serious and considerate. Even if he didn’t pay for the food or cook the meals, he managed the house.
“You looked good in your suit, son,” my father said.
“Thanks.” This mattered to my brother. He had wanted to make my father proud and had taken time with his appearance, even asking Grandma Lynn that morning to help trim the bangs that fell in his eyes. My brother was in the most awkward stage of adolescence-not boy, not man. Most days he hid his body in big T-shirts and sloppy jeans, but he had liked wearing the suit that day. “Hal and Grandma are waiting for us downstairs,” he said.
“I’ll be down in a minute.”
Buckley closed the door all the way this time, letting the latch snap into place.
That fall my father had developed the last roll of film that I’d kept in my closet in my “rolls to hold back” box, and now, as he often did when he begged just a minute before dinner or saw something on TV or read an article in the paper that made his heart ache, he drew back his desk drawer and gingerly lifted the photos in his hand.
He had lectured me repeatedly that what I called my “artistic shots” were foolhardy, but the best portrait he ever had was one I took of him at an angle so his face filled the three-by-three square when you held it so it was a diamond.
I must have been listening to his hints on camera angles and composition when I took the pictures he held now. He had had no idea what order the rolls were in or what they were of when he had them developed. There were an inordinate number of photos of Holiday, and many a shot of my feet or the grass. Gray balls of blurs in the air which were birds, and a grainy attempt at a sunset over the pussy-willow tree. But at some point I had decided to take portraits of my mother. When he’d picked the roll up at the photo lab my father sat in the car staring at photos of a woman he felt he barely knew anymore.
Since then he had taken these photos out too many times to count, but each time he looked into the face of this woman he had felt something growing inside him. It took him a long time to realize what it was. Only recently had his wounded synapses allowed him to name it. He had been falling in love all over again.
He didn’t understand how two people who were married, who saw each other every day, could forget what each other looked like, but if he had had to name what had happened-this was it. And the last two photos in the roll provided the key. He had come home from work-I remember trying to keep my mother’s attention as Holiday barked when he heard the car pull into the garage.
“He’ll come out,” I said. “Stay still.” And she did. Part of what I loved about photography was the power it gave me over the people on the other side of the camera, even my own parents.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw my father walk through the side door into the yard. He carried his slim briefcase, which, years before, Lindsey and I had heatedly investigated only to find very little of interest to us. As he set it down I snapped the last solitary photo of my mother. Already her eyes had begun to seem distracted and anxious, diving under and up into a mask somehow. In the next photo, the mask was almost, but not quite, in place and the final photo, where my father was leaning slightly down to give her a kiss on the cheek-there it was.
“Did I do that to you?” he asked her image as he stared at the pictures of my mother, lined up in a row. “How did that happen?”
“The lightning stopped,” my sister said. The moisture of the rain on her skin had been replaced by sweat.
“I love you,” Samuel said. “I know.”
“No, I mean I love you, and I want to marry you, and I want to live in this house!”
“That hideous, hideous college shit is over!” Samuel screamed. The small room absorbed his voice, barely bouncing back an echo from its thick walls.
“Not for me, it isn’t,” my sister said.
Samuel got up off the floor, where he had been lying beside my sister, and came to his knees in front of her. “Marry me.”
“I’m tired of doing all the right things. Marry me and I’ll make this house gorgeous.”
“Who will support us?”
“We will,” he said, “somehow.”
She sat up and then joined him kneeling. They were both half-dressed and growing colder as their heat began to dissipate.
“I think I can,” my sister said. “I mean, yes!”
Some cliches I understood only when they came into my heaven full speed. I had never seen a chicken with its head cut off. It had never meant much to me except something else that had been treated much the same as me. But that moment I ran around my heaven like … a chicken with its head cut off! I was so happy I screamed over and over and over again. My sister! My Samuel! My dream!
She was crying, and he held her in his arms, rocking her against him. “Are you happy, sweetheart?” he asked.
She nodded against his bare chest. “Yes,” she said, then froze. “My dad.” She raised her head and looked at Samuel. “I know he’s worried.”
“Yes,” he said, trying to switch gears with her.
“How many miles is it to the house from here?” “Ten maybe,” Samuel said. “Maybe eight.” “We could do that,” she said.
“We have sneakers in the other pannard.”
They could not run in leather, so they wore their underwear and T-shirts, as close to streakers as anyone in my family would ever be. Samuel, as he had for years, set a pace just ahead of my sister to keep her going. There were hardly any cars on the road, but when one passed by a wall of water would come up from the puddles near the side of the road and make the two of them gasp to get air back in their lungs. Both of them had run in rain before but never rain this heavy. They made a game of who could gain the most shelter as they ran the miles, waltzing in and out to gain cover under any overhanging trees, even as the dirt and grime of the road covered their legs. But by mile three they were silent, pushing their feet forward in a natural rhythm they had both known for years, focusing on the sound of their own breath and the sound of their wet shoes hitting the pavement.
At some point as she splashed through a large puddle, no longer trying to avoid them, she thought of the local pool of which we had been members until my death brought the comfortably public existence of my family to a close. It had been somewhere along this road, but she did not lift her head to find the familiar chain-link fence. Instead, she had a memory. She and I were under water in our bathing suits with their small ruffled skirts. Both of our eyes were open under water, a new skill- newer for her-and we were looking at each other, our separate bodies suspended under water. Hair floating, small skirts floating, our cheeks bulging with captured air. Then, together, we would grab on to each other and shoot up out of the water, breaking the surface. We sucked air into our lungs-ears popping-and laughed together.
I watched my beautiful sister running, her lungs and legs pumping, and the skill from the pool still there-fighting to see through the rain, fighting to
keep her legs lifting at the pace set by Samuel, and I knew she was not running away from me or toward me. Like someone who has survived a gut-shot, the wound had been closing, closing-braiding into a scar for eight long years.
By the time the two of them were within a mile of my house, the rain had lightened and people were beginning to look out their windows toward the street.
Samuel slowed his pace and she joined him. Their T-shirts were locked onto their bodies like paste. Lindsey had fought off a cramp in her side, but as the cramp lifted she ran with Samuel full-out. Suddenly she was covered in goose bumps and smiling ear to ear,
“We’re getting married!” she said, and he stopped short, grabbed her up in his arms, and they were still kissing when a car passed them on the road, the driver honking his horn. When the doorbell rang at our house it was four o’clock and Hal was in the kitchen wearing one of my mother’s old white chefs aprons and cutting brownies for Grandma Lynn. He liked being put to work, feeling useful, and my grandmother liked to use him. They were a simpatico team. While Buckley, the boy-guard, loved to eat.
“I’ll get it,” my father said. He had been propping himself up during the rain with highballs, mixed, not measured, by Grandma Lynn.
He was spry now with a thin sort of grace, like a retired ballet dancer who favored one leg over the other after long years of one-footed leaps.
“I was so worried,” he said when he opened the door.
Lindsey was holding her arms over her chest, and even my father had to laugh while he looked away and hurriedly got the extra blankets kept in the front closet. Samuel draped one around Lindsey first, as my father covered Samuel’s shoulders as best he could and puddles collected on the flagstone floor. Just as Lindsey had covered herself up, Buckley and Hal and Grandma Lynn came forward into the hallway.
“Buckley,” Grandma Lynn said, “go get some towels.”
“Did you manage the bike in this?” Hal asked, incredulous. “No, we ran,” Samuel said.
“Get into the family room,” my father said. “We’ll set a fire going.”
While the two of them sat with their backs to the fire, shivering at first and drinking the brandy shots Grandma Lynn had Buckley serve them on a silver tray, everyone heard the story of the bike and the house and the octagonal room with windows that had made Samuel euphoric.
“And the bike’s okay?” Hal asked.
“We did the best we could” Samuel said, “but we’ll need a tow.” “I’m just happy that the two of you are safe,” my father said. “We ran home for you, Mr. Salmon.”
My grandmother and brother had taken seats at the far end of the room, away from the fire.
“We didn’t want anyone to worry” Lindsey said. “Lindsey didn’t want you to worry, specifically.”
The room was silent for a moment. What Samuel had said was true, of course, but it also pointed too clearly to a certain fact- that Lindsey and Buckley had come to live their lives in direct proportion to what effect it would have on a fragile father.
Grandma Lynn caught my sister’s eye and winked. “Hal and Buckley and I made brownies,” she said. “And I have some frozen lasagna I can break out if you’d like.” She stood and so did my brother-ready to help.
“I’d love some brownies, Lynn,” Samuel said.
“Lynn? I like that,” she said. “Are you going to start calling Jack Jack?” “Maybe.”
Once Buckley and Grandma Lynn had left the room, Hal felt a new nervousness in the air. “I think I’ll pitch in,” he said.
Lindsey, Samuel, and my father listened to the busy noises of the kitchen. They could all hear the clock ticking in the corner, the one my mother had called our “rustic colonial clock.”
“I know I worry too much,” my father said.
“That’s not what Samuel meant,” Lindsey said. Samuel was quiet and I was watching him,
“Mr. Salmon,” he finally said-he was not quite ready to try “Jack.” “I’ve asked Lindsey to marry me.”
Lindsey’s heart was in her throat, but she wasn’t looking at Samuel. She was looking at my father.
Buckley came in with a plate of brownies, and Hal followed him with champagne glasses hanging from his fingers and a bottle of 1978 Dom Perignon. “From your grandmother, on your graduation day,” Hal said.
Grandma Lynn came through next, empty-handed except for her highball. It caught the light and glittered like a jar of icy diamonds.
For Lindsey, it was as if no one but herself and my father were there. “What do you say, Dad?” she asked.
“I’d say,” he managed, standing up to shake Samuel’s hand, “that I couldn’t wish for a better son-in-law.”
Grandma Lynn exploded on the final word. “My God, oh, honey! Congratulations!”
Even Buckley let loose, slipping out of the knot that usually held him and into a rare joy. But I saw the fine, wavering line that still tied my sister to my father. The invisible cord that can kill. The champagne cork popped.
“Like a master!” my grandmother said to Hal, who was pouring.
It was Buckley, as my father and sister joined the group and listened to Grandma Lynn s countless toasts, who saw me. He saw me standing under the rustic colonial dock and stared. He was drinking champagne. There were strings coming out from all around me, reaching out, waving in the air. Someone passed him a brownie. He held it in his hands but did not eat. He saw my shape and face, which had not changed-the hair still parted down the middle, the chest still flat and hips undeveloped-and wanted to call out my name. It was only a moment, and then I was gone.
Over the years, when I grew tired of watching, I often sat in the back of the trains that went in and out of Suburban Station in Philadelphia.
Passengers would get on and off as I listened to their conversations mix with the sounds of the train doors opening and closing, the conductors yelling their stops, and the shuffle and staccato of shoe soles and high heels going from pavement to metal to the soft thump thump on the carpeted train aisles. It was what Lindsey, in her workouts, called an active rest; my muscles were still engaged but my focus relaxed. I listened to the sounds and felt the train’s movement and sometimes, by doing this, I could hear the voices of those who no longer lived on Earth. Voices of others like me, the watchers.
Almost everyone in heaven has someone on Earth they watch, a loved one, a friend, or even a stranger who was once kind, who offered warm food or a bright smile when one of us had needed it. And when I wasn’t watching I could hear the others talking to those they loved on Earth: just as fruitlessly as me, I’m afraid. A one-sided cajoling and coaching of the young, a one-way loving and desiring of their mates, a single-sided card that could never be signed.
The train would be still or stop-starting from 30th Street to near Overbrook, and I could hear them say names and sentences; “Now be careful with that glass.” “Mind your father.” “Oh, look how big she looks in
that dress.” “I’m with you, Mother,” “… Esmeralda, Sally, Lupe, Keesha, Frank …” So many names. And then the train would gain speed, and as it did the volume of all these unheard phrases coming from heaven would grow louder and louder; at its height between stations, the noise of our longing became so deafening that I had to open my eyes.
I saw women hanging or collecting wash as I peered from the windows of the suddenly silent trains. They stooped over baskets and then spread white or yellow or pink sheets along the line. I counted men’s underwear and boys’ underwear and the familiar lollipop cotton of little girls’ drawers. And the sound of it that I craved and missed-the sound of life-replaced the endless calling of names.
Wet laundry: the snap, the yank, the wet heaviness of double-and queen-sized sheets. The real sounds bringing back the remembered sounds of the past when I had lain under the dripping clothes to catch water on my tongue or run in between them as if they were traffic cones through which I chased Lindsey or was chased by Lindsey back and forth. And this would be joined by the memory of our mother attempting to lecture us about the peanut butter from our hands getting on the good sheets, or the sticky lemon-candy patches she had found on our father’s shirts. In this way the sight and smell of the real, of the imagined, and of the remembered all came together for me.
After I turned away from Earth that day, I rode the trains until I could think of only one thing:
“Hold still,” my father would say, while I held the ship in the bottle and he burned away the strings he’d raised the mast with and set the clipper ship free on its blue putty sea. And I would wait for him, recognizing the tension of that moment when the world in the bottle depended, solely, on me.