When her father mentioned the sinkhole on the phone, Ruth was in the walk-in closet that she rented on First Avenue. She twirled the phone’s long black cord around her wrist and arm and gave short, clipped answers of acknowledgment. The old woman that rented her the closet liked to listen in, so Ruth tried not to talk much on the phone. Later, from the street, she would call home collect and plan a visit.
She had known she would make a pilgrimage to see it before the developers closed it up. Her fascination with places like the sinkhole was a secret she kept, as was my murder and our meeting in the faculty parking lot. They were all things she would not give away in New York, where she watched others tell their drunken bar stories, prostituting their families and their traumas for popularity and booze. These things, she felt, were not to be passed around like disingenuous party favors. She kept an honor code with her journals and her poems. “Inside, inside,” she would whisper quietly to herself when she felt the urge to tell, and she would end up taking long walks through the city, seeing instead the Stolfuz cornfield or an image of her father staring at his pieces of rescued antique molding. New York provided a perfect background for her thoughts. Despite her willed stomping and pitching in its streets and byways, the city itself had very little to do with her interior life.
She no longer looked haunted, as she had in high school, but still, if you looked closely at her eyes you could see the skittery rabbit energy that often made people nervous. She had an expression of someone who was constantly on the lookout for something or someone that hadn’t yet arrived. Her whole body seemed to slant forward in inquiry, and though she had been told at the bar where she worked that she had beautiful hair or beautiful hands or, on the rare occasions when any of her patrons saw her come out from behind the bar, beautiful legs, people never said anything about her eyes. She dressed hurriedly in black tights, a short black skirt, black boots, and a black T-shirt, all of them stained from serving double-duty as work clothes and real clothes. The stains could be seen only in the sunlight, so Ruth was never really aware of them until later, when she
would stop at an outdoor cafe for a cup of coffee and look down at her skirt and see the dark traces of spilled vodka or whiskey. The alcohol had the effect of making the black cloth blacker. This amused her; she had noted in her journal: “booze affects material as it does people.”
Once outside the apartment, on her way for a cup of coffee on First Avenue, she made up secret conversations with the bloated lap dogs -Chihuahuas and Pomeranians-that the Ukrainian women held on their laps as they sat on their stoops. Ruth liked the antagonistic little dogs, who barked ardently as she passed.
Then she walked, walked flat out, walked with an ache coming up through the earth and into the heel of her striking foot. No one said hello to her except creeps, and she made a game of how many streets she could navigate without having to stop for traffic. She would not slow down for another person and would vivisect crowds of NYU students or old women with their laundry carts, creating a wind on either side of her. She liked to imagine that when she passed the world looked after her, but she also knew how anonymous she was. Except when she was at work, no one knew where she was at any time of day and no one waited for her. It was an immaculate anonymity.
She would not know that Samuel had proposed to my sister and, unless it trickled down to her through Ray, the sole person she had kept in touch with from school, she would never find out. While still at Fairfax she had heard my mother had left. A fresh ripple of whispers had gone through the high school, and Ruth had watched my sister cope with them as best she could.
Occasionally the two of them would meet up in the hallway. Ruth would say a few words of support if she could manage them without doing what she thought of as harming Lindsey by talking to her. Ruth knew her status as a freak at school and knew that then-one night at the gifted symposium had been exactly what it felt like-a dream, where elements let loose came together unbidden outside the damning rules of school.
But Ray was different. Their kisses and early pushing and rubbings were objects under glass to her-memories that she kept preserved. She saw him every time she visited her parents and had known immediately that it would be Ray she took when she went back to see the sinkhole. He would be
happy for the vacation from his constant studying grind, and, if she was lucky, he would describe, as he often did, a medical procedure that he had observed. Ray’s way of describing such things made her feel as if she knew exactly what it felt like-not just what it looked like. He could evoke everything for her, with small verbal pulse points of which he was completely unaware. Heading north on First, she could tick off all the places she’d formerly stopped and stood, certain that she had found a spot where a woman or girl had been killed. She tried to list them in her journal at the end of each day, but often she was so consumed with what she thought might have happened in this or that dark overhang or tight alleyway that she neglected the simpler, more obvious ones, where she had read about a death in the paper and visited what had been a woman’s grave.
She was unaware that she was somewhat of a celebrity up in heaven. I had told people about her, what she did, how she observed moments of silence up and down the city and wrote small individual prayers in her journal, and the story had traveled so quickly that women lined up to know if she had found where they’d been killed. She had fans in heaven, even though she would have been disappointed to know that often these fans, when they gathered, resembled more a bunch of teenagers poring over an issue of TeenBeat than Ruth’s image of low dirgelike whisperings set to a celestial timpani.
I was the one who got to follow and watch, and, as opposed to the giddy choir, I often found these moments as painful as they were amazing. Ruth would get an image and it would burn into her memory. Sometimes they were only bright flashes-a fall down the stairs, a scream, a shove, the tightening of hands around a neck-and at other times it was as if an entire scenario spun out in her head in just the amount of time that it took the girl or woman to die.
No one on the street thought anything of the downtown girl dressed in black who had paused in the middle of midtown foot traffic. In her art student camouflage she could walk the entire length of Manhattan and, if not blend in, be classified and therefore ignored. Meanwhile, for us, she was doing important work, work that most people on Earth were too frightened even to contemplate. The day after Lindsey and Samuel’s graduation I
joined her on her walk. By the time she got up to Central Park it was well past lunchtime, but the park was still busy. Couples sat on the clipped grass of the Sheep Meadow. Ruth peered at them. Her ardentness was off-putting on a sunny afternoon, and when the open faces of young men caught sight of her they closed down or looked away. She zigzagged up and across the park. There were obvious places where she could go, like the Rambles, to document the history of violence there without even leaving the trees, but she preferred those places people considered safe. The cool shimmering surface of the duck pond tucked into the busy southeast corner of the park, or the placid man-made lake, where old men sailed beautiful hand-carved boats.
She sat on a bench on a path leading to the Central Park Zoo and looked out across the gravel at children with their nannies and lone adults reading books in various patches of shade or sun. She was tired from the walk uptown, but still she took her journal out from her bag. She placed it open on her lap, holding the pen as her thinking prop. It was better to look like you were doing something when you stared into the distance, Ruth had learned. Otherwise it was likely that strange men would come over and try to talk to you. Her journal was her closest and most important relationship. It held everything.
Across from her a little girl had strayed from the blanket where her nanny slept. She was making her way for the bushes that lined a small rise before giving way to a fence separating the park from Fifth Avenue. Just as Ruth was about to enter the world of human beings whose lives impinged on one another by calling out to the nanny, a thin cord, which Ruth had not seen, warned the nanny to wake. She immediately sat bolt upright and barked an order at the little girl to return.
In moments like this she thought of all the little girls who grew into adulthood and old age as a sort of cipher alphabet for all of those who didn’t. Their lives would somehow be inextricably attached to all the girls who had been killed. It was then, as the nanny packed up her bag and rolled up the blanket, preparing for whatever came next in their day, that Ruth saw her-a little girl who had strayed for the bushes one day and disappeared.
She could tell by the clothes that it had happened some time ago, but that was all. There was nothing else-no nanny or mother, no idea of night or day, only a little girl gone.
I stayed with Ruth. Her journal open, she wrote it down. “Time? Little girl in C.P, strays toward bushes. White lace collar, fancy.” She closed the journal and tucked it into her bag. Close at hand was a place that soothed her. The penguin house at the zoo.
We spent the afternoon together there, Ruth sitting on the carpeted seat that ran the length of the exhibit, her black clothes making only her face and hands visible in the room. The penguins tottered and clucked and dived, slipping off the habitat rocks like amiable harns but living under water like tuxedoed muscles. Children shouted and screamed and pressed their faces against the glass. Ruth counted the living just as much as she counted the dead, and in the close confines of the penguin house the joyous screams of the children echoed off the walls with such vibrancy that, for a little while, she could drown out the other kinds of screams. That weekend my brother woke early, as he always did. He was in the seventh grade and bought his lunch at school and was on the debate team and, like Ruth had been, was always picked either last or second to last in gym. He had not taken to athletics as Lindsey had. He practiced instead what Grandma Lynn called his “air of dignification.” His favorite teacher was not really a teacher at all but the school librarian, a tall, frail woman with wiry hair who drank tea from her thermos and talked about having lived in England when she was young. After this he had affected an English accent for a few months and shown a heightened interest when my sister watched Masterpiece Theatre.
When he had asked my father that year if he could reclaim the garden my mother had once kept, my father had said, “Sure, Buck, go crazy.”
And he had. He had gone extraordinarily, insanely crazy, reading old Burpee catalogs at night when he was unable to sleep and scanning the few books on gardening that the school library kept. Where my grandmother had suggested respectful rows of parsley and basil and Hal had suggested “some plants that really matter”- eggplants, cantaloupes, cucumbers, carrots, and beans – my brother had thought they were both right.
He didn’t like what he read in books. He saw no reason to keep flowers separated from tomatoes and herbs segregated in a corner. He had slowly planted the whole garden with a spade, daily begging my father to bring him seeds and taking trips to the grocery with Grandma Lynn, where the price of his extreme helpfulness in fetching things would be a quick stop at the greenhouse for a small flowering plant. He was now awaiting his tomatoes, his blue daisies, his petunias, and pansies and salvias of all kinds. He had made his fort a sort of work shed for the garden, where he kept his tools and supplies.
But my grandmother was preparing for the moment when he realized that they couldn’t grow all together and that some seeds would not come up at certain times, that the fine downy tendrils of cucumber might be abruptly stopped by the thickening underground bosses of carrot and potato, that the parsley might be camouflaged by the more recalcitrant weeds, and bugs that hopped about could blight the tender flowers. But she was waiting patiently. She no longer believed in talk. It never rescued anything. At seventy she had come to believe in time alone.
Buckley was hauling up a box of clothes from the basement and into the kitchen when my father came down for his coffee.
“What ya got there, Farmer Buck?” my father said. He had always been at his best in the morning.
“I’m making stakes for my tomato plants,” my brother said. “Are they even above ground yet?”
My father stood in the kitchen in his blue terry-cloth robe and bare feet. He poured his coffee from the coffee maker that Grandma Lynn set up each morning, and sipped at it as he looked at his son.
“I just saw them this morning,” my brother said, beaming. “They curl up like a hand unfolding.”
It wasn’t until my father was repeating this description to Grandma Lynn as he stood at the counter that he saw, through the back window, what Buckley had taken from the box. They were my clothes. My clothes, which
Lindsey had picked through for anything she might save. My clothes, which my grandmother, when she had moved into my room, had quietly boxed while my father was at work. She had put them down in the basement with a small label that said, simply, SAVE.
My father put down his coffee. He walked out through the screened-in porch and strode forward, calling Buckley s name.
“What is it, Dad?” He was alert to my father’s tone.
“Those clothes are Susie’s,” my father said calmly when he reached him. Buckley looked down at my blackwatch dress that he held in his hand.
My father stepped closer, took the dress from my brother, and then, without speaking, he gathered the rest of my clothes, which Buckley had piled on the lawn. As he turned in silence toward the house, hardly breathing, clutching my clothes to him, it sparked.
I was the only one to see the colors. Just near Buckley’s ears and on the tips of his cheeks and chin he was a little orange somehow, a little red.
“Why can’t I use them?” he asked. It landed in my father’s back like a fist. “Why can’t I use those clothes to stake my tomatoes?”
My father turned around. He saw his son standing there, behind him the perfect plot of muddy, churned-up earth spotted with tiny seedlings. “How can you ask me that question?”
“You have to choose. It’s not fair,” my brother said. “Buck?” My father held my clothes against his chest.
I watched Buckley flare and light. Behind him was the sun of the goldenrod hedge, twice as tall as it had been at my death.
“I’m tired of it!” Buckley blared. “Keesha’s dad died and she’s okay!”
“Is Keesha a girl at school?” “Yes!”
My father was frozen. He could feel the dew that had gathered on his bare ankles and feet, could feel the ground underneath him, cold and moist and stirring with possibility.
“I’m sorry. When did this happen?”
“That’s not the point, Dad! You don’t get it.” Buckley turned around on his heel and started stomping the tender tomato shoots with his foot.
“Buck, stop!” my father cried. My brother turned. “You don’t get it, Dad,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” my father said, “These are Susie’s clothes and I just … It may not make sense, but they’re hers-something she wore.”
“You took the shoe, didn’t you?” my brother said. He had stopped crying now. “What?”
“You took the shoe. You took it from my room.” “Buckley, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “I saved the Monopoly shoe and then it was gone. You took it! You act like she was yours only!”
“Tell me what you want to say. What’s this about your friend Keesha’s dad?”
“Put the clothes down.”
My father laid them gently on the ground. “It isn’t about Keesha’s dad.”
“Tell me what it is about.” My father was now all immediacy. He went back to the place he had been after his knee surgery, coming up out of the druggie sleep of painkillers to see his then-five-year-old son sitting near
him, waiting for his eyes to flicker open so he could say, “Peek-a-boo, Daddy.”
It never ceased to hurt. “I know that.”
“But you don’t act that way. Keesha’s dad died when she was six. Keesha said she barely even thinks of him.”
“She will,” my father said. “But what about us?” “Who?”
“Us, Dad- Me and Lindsey. Mom left because she couldn’t take it.”
“Calm down. Buck,” my father said. He was being as generous as he could as the air from his lungs evaporated out into his chest. Then a little voice in him said, Let go, let go, let go. “What?” my father said.
“I didn’t say anything.” Let go. Let go. Let go.
“I’m sorry,” my father said. “I’m not feeling very well.” His feet had grown unbelievably cold in the damp grass. His chest felt hollow, bugs flying around an excavated cavity. There was an echo in there, and it drummed up into his ears. Let go.
My father dropped down to his knees. His arm began to tingle on and off as if it had fallen asleep. Pins and needles up and down. My brother rushed to him.
“Son.” There was a quaver in his voice and a grasping outward toward my brother.
“I’ll get Grandma.” And Buckley ran.
My father whispered faintly as he lay on his side with his face twisted in the direction of my old clothes: “You can never choose. I’ve loved all three of you.”
That night my father lay in a hospital bed, attached to monitors that beeped and hummed. Time to circle around my father’s feet and along his spine.
Time to hush and usher him. But where?
Above his bed the clock ticked off the minutes and I thought of the game Lindsey and I had played in the yard together: “he loves me/he loves me not” picked out on a daisy’s petals. I could hear the clock casting my own two greatest wishes back to me in this same rhythm: “Die for me/don’t die for me, die for me/don’t die for me. I could not help myself, it seemed, as I tore at his weakening heart. If he died, I would have him forever. Was this so wrong to want?
At home, Buckley lay in bed in the dark and pulled the sheet up to his chin. He had not been allowed past the emergency room where Lindsey had driven them, following the shrieking ambulance inside which lay our father. My brother had felt a huge burden of guilt descend in the silences from Lindsey. In her two repeated questions: “What were you talking about?
Why was he so upset?”
My little brother’s greatest fear was that the one person who meant so much to him would go away. He loved Lindsey and Grandma Lynn and Samuel and Hal, but my father kept him stepping lightly, son gingerly monitoring father every morning and every evening as if, without such vigilance, he would lose him.
We stood – the dead child and the living-on either side of my father, both wanting the same thing. To have him to ourselves forever. To please us both was an impossibility.
My father had only missed nighttimes twice in Buckley’s life. Once after he had gone into the cornfield at night looking for Mr. Harvey and now as
he lay in the hospital and they monitored him in case of a second heart attack.
Buckley knew he should be too old for it to matter, but I sympathized with him. The good-night kiss was something at which my father excelled. As my father stood at the end of the bed after closing the Venetian blinds and running his hands down them to make sure they were all down at the same slant-no rebel Venetian stuck to let the sunlight in on his son before he came to wake him-my brother would often get goose bumps on his arms and legs. The anticipation was so sweet.
“Ready, Buck?” my father would say, and sometimes Buckley said “Roger,” or sometimes he said “Takeoff,” but when he was most frightened and giddy and waiting for peace he just said “Yes!” And my father would take the thin cotton top sheet and bunch it up in his hands while being careful to keep the two corners between his thumb and forefinger. Then he would snap it out so the pale blue (if they were using Buckley’s) or lavender (if they were using mine) sheet would spread out like a parachute above him and gently, what felt wonderfully slowly, it would waft down and touch along his exposed skin-his knees, his forearms, his cheeks and chin. Both air and cover somehow there in the same space at the same time-it felt like the ultimate freedom and protection. It was lovely, left him vulnerable and quivering on some edge and all he could hope was that if he begged him, my father would oblige and do it again. Air and cover, air and cover-sustaining the unspoken connection between them: little boy, wounded man.
That night his head lay on the pillow while his body was curled in the fetal position. He had not thought to close the blinds himself, and the lights from the nearby houses spotted the hill. He stared across his room at the louvered doors of his closet, out of which he had once imagined evil witches would escape to join the dragons beneath his bed. He no longer feared these things.
“Please don’t let Daddy die, Susie,” he whispered. “I need him,”
When I left my brother, I walked out past the gazebo and under the lights hanging down like berries, and I saw the brick paths branching out as I advanced.
I walked until the bricks turned to flat stones and then to small, sharp rocks and then to nothing but churned earth for miles and miles around me. I stood there. I had been in heaven long enough to know that something would be revealed. And as the light began to fade and the sky turn a dark, sweet blue as it had on the night of my death, I saw someone walking into view, so far away I could not at first make out if it was man or woman, child or adult. But as moonlight reached this figure I could make out a man and, frightened now, my breathing shallow, I raced just far enough to see.
Was it my father? Was it what 1 had wanted all this time so desperately?
“Susie,” the man said as I approached and then stopped a few feet from where he stood. He raised his arms up toward me.
“Remember?” he said.
I found myself small again, age six and in a living room in Illinois. Now, as I had done then, I placed my feet on top of his feet.
“Grandaddy,” I said.
And because we were all alone and both in heaven, I was light enough to move as I had moved when I was six and he was fifty-six and my father had taken us to visit. We danced so slowly to a song that on Earth had always made my grandfather cry.
“Do you remember?” he asked. “Barber!”
“Adagio for Strings,” he said.
But as we danced and spun-none of the herky-jerky awkwardness of Earth-what I remembered was how I’d found him crying to this music and asked him why.
“Sometimes you cry, Susie, even when someone you love has been gone a long time.” He had held me against him then, just briefly, and then I had run
outside to play again with Lindsey in what seemed like my grandfather’s huge backyard.
We didn’t speak any more that night, but we danced for hours in that timeless blue light. I knew as we danced that something was happening on Earth and in heaven. A shifting. The sort of slow-to-sudden movement that we’d read about in science class one year. Seismic, impossible, a rending and tearing of time and space. I pressed myself into my grandfather’s chest and smelled the old-man smell of him, the mothball version of my own father, the blood on Earth, the sky in heaven. The kumquat, skunk, grade-A tobacco.
When the music stopped, it could have been forever since we’d begun. My grandfather took a step back, and the light grew yellow at his back.
“I’m going,” he said. “Where? “I asked.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart. You’re so close.”
He turned and walked away, disappearing rapidly into spots and dust. Infinity.