When she reached Krusoe Winery that morning, my mother found a message waiting for her, scrawled in the imperfect English of the caretaker. The word emergency was clear enough, and my mother bypassed her morning ritual of an early coffee drunk while staring out at the grapevines grafted on row upon row of sturdy white crosses. She opened up the part of the winery reserved for public tastings. “Without turning on the overhead, she located the phone behind the wooden bar and dialed the number in Pennsylvania. No answer.
Then she dialed the operator in Pennsylvania and asked for the number of Dr. Akhil Singh.
“Yes,” Ruana said, “Ray and I saw an ambulance pull up a few hours ago. I imagine they’re all at the hospital.”
“Who was it?”
“Your mother, perhaps?”
But she knew from the note that her mother had been the one who called. It was one of the children or it was Jack. She thanked Ruana and hung up. She grabbed the heavy red phone and lifted it up from underneath the bar. A ream of color sheets that they passed out to customers-“Lemon Yellow = Young Chardonnay, Straw-colored = Sauvignon Blanc…”-fell down and around her feet from where they had been kept weighted by the phone. She had habitually arrived early ever since taking the job, and now she gave a quick thanks that this was so. After that, all she could think of were the names of the local hospitals, so she called the ones to which she had rushed her young children with unexplained fevers or possible broken bones from falls. At the same hospital where I had once rushed Buckley: “A Jack Salmon was seen in emergency and is still here.”
“Can you tell me what happened?”
“What is your relationship to Mr. Salmon?”
She said the words she had not said in years: “I’m his wife.” “He had a heart attack.”
She hung up the phone and sat down on the rubber-and-cork mats that covered the floor on the employee side. She sat there until the shift manager arrived and she repeated the strange words: husband, heart attack.
When she looked up later she was in the caretaker’s truck, and he, this quiet man who barely ever left the premises, was barreling toward San Francisco International Airport.
She paid for her ticket and boarded a flight that would connect to another in Chicago and finally land her in Philadelphia. As the plane gained height and they were buried in the clouds, my mother listened distantly to the signature bells of the plane which told the crew what to do or what to prepare for, and she heard the cocktail cart jiggling past, but instead of her fellow passengers she saw the cool stone archway at the winery, behind which the empty oak barrels were stored, and instead of the men who often sat inside there to get out of the sun she imagined my father sitting there, holding the broken Wedgwood cup out toward her.
By the time she landed in Chicago with a two-hour wait, she had steadied herself enough to buy a toothbrush and a pack of cigarettes and place a call to the hospital, this time asking to speak to Grandma Lynn.
“Mother,” my mother said. “I’m in Chicago and on my way.”
“Abigail, thank God,” my grandmother said. “I called Krusoe again and they said you were headed for the airport.”
“How is he?”
“He’s asking for you.” “Are the kids there?”
“Yes, and Samuel. I was going to call you today and tell you. Samuel has asked Lindsey to marry him.”
“That’s wonderful,” my mother said. “Abigail?”
“Yes.” She could hear her mother’s hesitation, which was always rare. “Jack’s asking for Susie, too.”
She lit a cigarette as soon as she walked outside the terminal at O’Hare, a school tour flooding past her with small overnight bags and band instruments, each of which had a bright yellow nametag on the side of the case. HOME OF THE PATRIOTS, they read.
It was muggy and humid in Chicago, and the smoky exhaust of double-parked cars made the heavy air noxious.
She burned through the cigarette in record time and lit another, keeping one arm tucked hard across her chest and the other one extended on each exhale. She was wearing her winery outfit: a pair of faded but clean jeans and a pale orange T-shirt with KRUSOE WINERY embroidered over the pocket. Her skin was darker now, which made her pale blue eyes seem even bluer in contrast, and she had taken to wearing her hair in a loose ponytail at the base of her neck. I could see small wisps of salt and pepper hair near her ears and at her temples.
She held on to two sides of an hourglass and wondered how this could be possible. The time she’d had alone had been gravitationally circumscribed by when her attachments would pull her back. And they had pulled now-double-fisted. A marriage. A heart attack.
Standing outside the terminal, she reached into the back pocket of her jeans, where she kept the man’s wallet she had started carrying when she got the job at Krusoe because it was easier not to worry about stowing a purse beneath the bar. She flicked her cigarette into the cab lane and turned to find
a seat on the edge of a concrete planter, inside of which grew weeds and one sad sapling choked by fumes.
In her wallet were pictures, pictures she looked at every day. But there was one that she kept turned upside down in a fold of leather meant for a credit card. It was the same one that rested in the evidence box at the police station, the same one Ray had put in his mother’s book of Indian poetry. My class photo that had made the papers and been put on police fliers and in mailboxes.
After eight years it was, even for my mother, like the ubiquitous photo of a celebrity. She had encountered it so many times that I had been neatly buried inside of it. My cheeks never redder, my eyes never bluer than they were in the photograph.
She took the photo out and held it face-up and slightly cupped in her hand. She had always missed my teeth-their small rounded serrations had fascinated her as she watched me grow. I had promised my mother a wide-open smile for that year’s picture, but I was so self-conscious in front of the photographer that I had barely managed a close-lipped grin.
She heard the announcement for the connecting flight over the outdoor speaker. She stood. Turning around she saw the tiny, struggling tree. She left my class portrait propped up against its trunk and hurried inside the automatic doors. On the flight to Philadelphia, she sat alone in the middle of a row of three seats. She could not help but think of how, if she were a mother traveling, there would be two seats filled beside her. One for Lindsey. One for Buckley. But though she was, by definition, a mother, she had at some point ceased to be one too. She couldn’t claim that right and privilege after missing more than half a decade of their lives. She now knew that being a mother was a calling, something plenty of young girls dreamed of being. But my mother had never had that dream, and she had been punished in the most horrible and unimaginable way for never having wanted me.
I watched her on the plane, and I sent a wish into the clouds for her release. Her body grew heavy with the dread of what would come but in
this heaviness was at least relief. The stewardess handed her a small blue pillow and for a little while she fell asleep.
When they reached Philadelphia, the airplane taxied down the runway and she reminded herself both where she was and what year it was. She hurriedly clicked through all the things she might say when she saw her children, her mother, Jack, And then, when they finally shivered to a halt, she gave up and focused only on getting off the plane.
She barely recognized her own child waiting at the end of the long ramp. In the years that had passed, Lindsey had become angular, thin, every trace of body fat gone. And standing beside my sister was what looked like her male twin. A bit taller, a little more meat. Samuel. She was staring so hard at the two of them, and they were staring back, that at first she didn’t even see the chubby boy sitting off to the side on the arm of a row of waiting-area seats.
And then, just before she began walking toward them-for they all seemed suspended and immobile for the first few moments, as if they had been trapped in a viscous gelatin from which only her movement might free them-she saw him.
She began walking down the carpeted ramp. She heard announcements being made in the airport and saw passengers, with their more normal greetings, rushing past her. But it was as if she were entering a time warp as she took him in. 1944 at Camp Winnekukka. She was twelve, with chubby cheeks and heavy legs-all the things she’d felt grateful her daughters had escaped had been her son’s to endure. So many years she had been away, so much time she could never recover,
If she had counted, as I did, she would have known that in seventy-three steps she had accomplished what she had been too afraid to do for almost seven years. It was my sister who spoke first:
“Mom,” she said.
My mother looked at my sister and flashed forward thirty-eight years from the lonely girl she’d been at Camp Winnekukka.
“Lindsey,” my mother said.
Lindsey stared at her. Buckley was standing now, but he looked first down at his shoes and then over his shoulder, out past the window to where the planes were parked, disgorging their passengers into accordioned tubes.
“How is your father?” my mother asked.
My sister had spoken the word Mom and then frozen. It tasted soapy and foreign in her mouth.
“He’s not in the greatest shape, I’m afraid,” Samuel said. It was the longest sentence anyone had said, and my mother found herself disproportionately grateful for it.
“Buckley?” my mother said, preparing no face for him. Being who she was-whoever that was. He turned his head toward her like a racheted gun. “Buck,” he said.
“Buck,” she repeated softly and looked down at her hands. Lindsey wanted to ask, Where are your rings? “Shall we go?” Samuel asked.
The four of them entered the long carpeted tunnel that would bring them from her gate into the main terminal. They were headed toward the cavernous baggage claim when my mother said, “I didn’t bring any bags.”
They stood in an awkward cluster, Samuel looking for the right signs to redirect them back to the parking garage, “Morn,” my sister tried again.
“I lied to you,” my mother said before Lindsey could say anything further. Their eyes met, and in that hot wire that went from one to the other I swore I saw it, like a rat bulging, undigested, inside a snake: the secret of Len.
“We go back up the escalator,” Samuel said, “and then we can take the overhead walkway into the parking lot.”
Samuel called for Buckley, who had drifted off in the direction of a cadre of airport security officers. Uniforms had never lost the draw they held for him.
They were on the highway when Lindsey spoke next. “They won’t let Buckley in to see Dad because of his age.”
My mother turned around in her seat. “I’ll try and do something about that,” she said, looking at Buckley and attempting her first smile.
“Fuck you,” my brother whispered without looking up.
My mother froze. The car opened up. Full of hate and tension- a riptide of blood to swim through.
“Buck,” she said, remembering the shortened name just in time, “will you look at me?” He glared over the front seat, boring his fury into her.
Eventually my mother turned back around and Samuel, Lindsey, and my brother could hear the sounds from the passenger seat that she was trying hard not to make. Little peeps and a choked sob. But no amount of tears would sway Buckley. He had been keeping, daily, weekly, yearly, an underground storage room of hate. Deep inside this, the four-year-old sat, his heart flashing. Heart to stone, heart to stone.
“We’ll all feel better after seeing Mr. Salmon,” Samuel said, and then, because even he could not bear it, he leaned forward toward the dash and turned on the radio. It was the same hospital that she had come to eight years ago in the middle of the night. A different floor painted a different color, but she could feel it encasing her as she walked down the hall-what she’d done there. The push of Len’s body, her back pressed into the sharp stucco wall. Everything in her wanted to run-fly back to California, back to her quiet existence working among strangers. Hiding out in the folds of tree trunks and tropical petals, tucked away safely among so many foreign plants and people.
Her mother’s ankles and oxford pumps, which she saw from the hallway, brought her back. One of the many simple things she’d lost by moving so far away, just the commonplace of her mother’s feet-their solidity and humor-seventy-year-old feet in ridiculously uncomfortable shoes.
But as she walked forward into the room, everyone else-her son, her daughter, her mother-fell away.
My father’s eyes were weak but fluttered open when he heard her enter. He had tubes and wires coming out of his wrist and shoulder. His head seemed so fragile on the small square pillow.
She held his hand and cried silently, letting the tears come freely.
“Hello, Ocean Eyes,” he said. She nodded her head. This broken, beaten man-her husband.
“My girl,” he breathed out heavily. “Jack.”
“Look what it took to get you home,”
“Was it worth it?” she said, smiling bleakly.
“We’ll have to see,” he said. To see them together was like a tenuous belief made real.
My father could see glimmers, like the colored flecks inside my mother’s eyes-things to hold on to. These he counted among the broken planks and boards of a long-ago ship that had struck something greater than itself and sunk. There were only remnants and artifacts left to him now. He tried to reach up and touch her cheek, but his arm felt too weak. She moved closer and laid her cheek in his palm.
My grandmother knew how to move silently in heels. She tiptoed out of the room. As she resumed her normal stride and approached the waiting area, she intercepted a nurse with a message for Jack Salmon in Room 582. She had never met the man but knew his name. “Len Fenerman, will visit soon. Wishes you well.” She folded the note neatly. Just before she came upon Lindsey and Buckley, who had gone to join Samuel in the waiting room, she popped open the metal lip of her purse and placed it between her powder and comb.
TWENTY By the time Mr. Harvey reached the tin-roofed shack in Connecticut that night, it promised rain. He had killed a young waitress inside the shack several years before and then bought some new slacks with the tips he’d found in the front pocket of her apron. By now the rot would have been eclipsed, and it was true, as he approached the area, that no rank smell greeted him. But the shack was open and inside he could see the earth had been dug up. He breathed in and approached the shack warily. He fell asleep beside her empty grave.
At some point, to counter the list of the dead, I had begun keeping my own list of the living. It was something I noticed Len Fenerman did too. When he was off duty he would note the young girls and elderly women and every other female in the rainbow in between and count them among the things that sustained him. That young girl in the mall whose pale legs had grown too long for her now-too-young dress and who had an aching vulnerability that went straight to both Len’s and my own heart. Elderly women, wobbling with walkers, who insisted on dyeing their hair unnatural versions of the colors they had in youth. Middle-aged single mothers racing around in grocery stores while their children pulled bags of candy off the shelves.
When I saw them, I took count. Living, breathing women. Sometimes I saw the wounded-those who had been beaten by husbands or raped by strangers, children raped by their fathers-and I would wish to intervene somehow.
Len saw these wounded women all the time. They were regulars at the station, but even when he went somewhere outside his jurisdiction he could sense them when they came near. The wife in the bait-‘n’-tackle shop had no bruises on her face but cowered like a dog and spoke in apologetic whispers. The girl he saw walk the road each time he went upstate to visit his sisters. As the years passed she’d grown leaner, the fat from her cheeks had drained, and sorrow had loaded her eyes in a way that made them hang heavy and hopeless inside her mallowed skin. When she was not there it worried him. When she was there it both depressed and revived him,
He had not had much to write in my file for a long time, but a few items had joined the log of old evidence in the last few months: the name of another potential victim, Sophie Cichetti, the name of her son, and an alias
of George Harvey’s. There was also what he held in his hands: my Pennsylvania keystone charm. He moved it around inside the evidence bag, using his ringers, and found, again, my initials. The charm had been checked for any clues it could provide, and, besides its presence at the scene of another girl’s murder, it had come up clean under the microscope.
He had wanted to give the charm back to my father from the first moment he was able to confirm it was mine. Doing so was breaking the rules, but he had never had a body for them, just a sodden schoolbook and the pages from my biology book mixed in with a boy’s love note. A Coke bottle. My jingle-bell hat. These he had cataloged and kept. But the charm was different, and he meant to give it back.
A nurse he’d dated in the years after my mother left had called him when she noticed the name Jack Salmon on a list of patients admitted. Len had determined that he would visit my father in the hospital and bring my charm along with him. In Len’s mind he saw the charm as a talisman that might speed my father’s recovery.
I couldn’t help but think, as I watched him, of the barrels of toxic fluids that had accrued behind Hal’s bike shop where the scrub lining the railroad tracks had offered local companies enough cover to dump a stray container or two. Everything had been sealed up, but things were beginning to leak out. I had come to both pity and respect Len in the years since my mother left. He followed the physical to try to understand things that were impossible to comprehend. In that, I could see, he was like me. Outside the hospital, a young girl was selling small bouquets of daffodils, their green stems tied with lavender ribbons. I watched as my mother bought out the girl’s whole stock.
Nurse Eliot, who remembered my mother from eight years ago, volunteered to help her when she saw her coming down the hall, her arms full of flowers. She rounded up extra water pitchers from a supply closet and together she and my mother filled them with water and placed the flowers around my father’s room while he slept. Nurse Eliot thought that if loss could be used as a measure of beauty in a woman, my mother had grown even more beautiful. Lindsey, Samuel, and Grandma Lynn had taken Buckley home earlier in the evening. My mother was not ready to see the
house yet. She focused solely on my father. Everything else would have to wait, from the house and its silent reproach to her son and daughter. She needed something to eat and time to think. Instead of going to the hospital cafeteria, where the bright lights made her think only of all the futile efforts that hospitals contained to keep people awake for more bad news-the weak coffee, the hard chairs, the elevators that stopped on every floor-she left the building and walked down the sloped sidewalk leading away from the entrance.
It was dark out now, and the parking lot where she had once driven in the middle of the night in her nightgown was spotted with only a few cars. She hugged the cardigan her mother had left behind tightly to her.
She crossed the parking lot, looking into the dark cars for signs of who the people inside the hospital were. There were cassette tapes spread out on the passenger seat of one car, the bulky shape of a baby’s carseat in another. It became a game to her then, seeing what she could in each car. A way not to feel so alone and alien, as if she were a child playing a spy game in the house of her parents’ friends. Agent Abigail to Mission Control. I see a fuzzy dog toy, I see a soccer ball, I see a woman! There she was, a stranger sitting in the driver’s side behind the wheel. The woman did not see my mother looking at her, and as soon as she saw her face my mother turned her attention away, focusing on the bright lights of the old diner she had as her goal. She did not have to look back to know what the woman was doing. She was girding herself up to go inside. She knew the face. It was the face of someone who wanted more than anything to be anywhere but where she was.
She stood on the landscaped strip between the hospital and the emergency room entrance and wished for a cigarette. She had not questioned anything that morning. Jack had had a heart attack; she would go home. But now here, she didn’t know what she was supposed to do anymore. How long would she have to wait, what would have to happen, before she could leave again? Behind her in the parking lot, she heard the sound of a car door opening and closing-the woman going in.
The diner was a blur to her. She sat in a booth alone and ordered the kind of food-chicken-fried steak-that didn’t seem to exist in California. She was
thinking about this when a man directly across from her gave her the eye. She registered every detail of his appearance. It was automatic and something she didn’t do out west. While living in Pennsylvania after my murder, when she saw a strange man whom she didn’t trust, she did an immediate breakdown in her mind, It was quicker-honoring the pragmatics of fear-than pretending she shouldn’t think this way. Her dinner arrived, the chicken-fried steak and tea, and she focused on her food, on the gritty breading around the rubbery meat, on the metallic taste of old tea. She did not think she could handle being home more than a few days. Everywhere she looked she saw me, and at the booth across from her she saw the man who could have murdered me.
She finished the food, paid for it, and walked out of the diner without raising her eyes above waist level. A bell mounted on the door jingled above her, and she started, her heart jumping up in her chest.
She made it back across the highway in one piece, but she was breathing shallowly as she passed back across the parking lot. The car of the apprehensive visitor was still there.
In the main lobby, where people rarely sat, she decided to sit down and wait for her breathing to come back again.
She would spend a few hours with him and when he woke, she would say goodbye. As soon as her decision was made, a welcome coolness flew through her. The sudden relief of responsibility. Her ticket to a far-away land.
It was late now, after ten, and she took an empty elevator to the fifth floor, where the hall lights had been dimmed. She passed the nurses’ station, behind which two nurses were quietly gossiping. She could hear the lilt and glee of nuanced rumors being exchanged between them, the sound of easy intimacy in the air. Then, just as one nurse was unable to suppress a high-pitched laugh, my mother opened my father’s door and let it swing shut again. Alone.
It was as if there was a vacuum hush when the door closed. I felt I did not belong, that I should go too. But I was glued.
Seeing him sleeping in the dark, with only the low-wattage fluorescent light on at the back of the bed, she remembered standing in this same hospital and taking steps to sever herself from him.
As I saw her take my father’s hand, I thought of my sister and me sitting underneath the grave rubbing in the upstairs hallway. I was the dead knight gone to heaven with my faithful dog and she was the live wire of a wife. “How can I be expected to be trapped for the rest of my life by a man frozen in time?” Lindsey’s favorite line.
My mother sat with my father’s hand in hers for a long while. She thought how wonderful it would be to climb up on the fresh hospital sheets and lie beside him. And how impossible.
She leaned close. Even under the smells of antiseptics and alcohol, she could smell the grassy smell of his skin. When she’d left, she had packed her favorite shirt of my father’s and would sometimes wrap it around her just to have something of his on. She never wore it outside, so it kept his scent longer than it might have. She remembered one night, when she missed him most, buttoning it over a pillow and hugging it to her as if she were still a high school girl.
In the distance beyond the closed window she could hear the hum of far-off traffic on the highway, but the hospital was shutting down for the night. Only the rubber soles of the night nurses’ shoes made sounds as they passed in the hallway.
Just that winter she had found herself saying to a young woman who worked with her at the tasting bar on Saturdays that between a man and a woman there was always one person who was stronger than the other one. “That doesn’t mean the weaker one doesn’t love the stronger,” she’d pleaded. The girl looked at her blankly. But for my mother what mattered was that as she spoke, she had suddenly identified herself as the weaker one. This revelation sent her reeling. What had she thought all those years but the opposite?
She pulled her chair as close to his head as she could and laid her face on the edge of his pillow to watch him breathing, to see the flutter of his eye
beneath his eyelid when he dreamed. How could it be that you could love someone so much and keep it secret from yourself as you woke daily so far from home? She had put billboards and roads in between them, throwing roadblocks behind her and ripping off the rearview mirror, and thought that that would make him disappear? erase their life and children?
It was so simple, as she watched him, as his regular breathing calmed her, that she did not even see it happening at first. She began to think of the rooms in our house and the hours that she had worked so hard to forget spent inside of them. Like fruit put up in jars and forgotten about, the sweetness seemed even more distilled as she returned. There on that shelf were all the dates and silliness of their early love, the braid that began to form of their dreams, the solid root of a burgeoning family. The first solid evidence of it all. Me.
She traced a new line on my father’s face. She liked the silvering of his temples. Shortly after midnight, she fell asleep after trying as hard as she could to keep her eyes open. To hold on to everything all at once while she looked at that face, so that when he woke she could say goodbye.
When her eyes were closed and they both slept silently together, I whispered to them:
Stones and bones; snow and frost; seeds and beans and polliwogs. Paths and twigs, assorted kisses, We all know who Susie misses . ..
Around two A.M. it began to rain, and it rained down on the hospital and on my old home and in my heaven. On the tin-roofed shack where Mr.
Harvey slept, it was raining too. As the rain beat its tiny hammers above his head, he dreamed. He did not dream of” the girl whose remains had been removed and were now being analyzed but of Lindsey Salmon, of the 5! 5! 5! hitting the border of elderberry. He had this dream whenever he felt threatened. It had been in the flash of her soccer shirt that his life had begun to spin out of control. It was near four when I saw my father’s eyes open and saw him feel the warmth of my mother’s breath on his cheek even before he knew she was asleep. We wished together that he could hold her, but he was too weak. There was another way and he took it. He would tell
her the things he had felt after my death-the things that came into his mind so frequently but that no one knew but me.
But he did not want to wake her. The hospital was silent except for the sound of rain. Rain was following him, he felt, darkness and damp-he thought of Lindsey and Samuel at the doorway, soaked and smiling, having run all that way to relieve him. He often found himself repeatedly commanding himself back to center. Lindsey. Lindsey. Lindsey. Buckley.
The way the rain looked outside the windows, lit up in circular patches by the lights in the hospital parking lot, reminded him of the movies he had gone to see as a boy-Hollywood rain. He closed his eyes with the breath of my mother reassuringly exhaling against his cheek and listened to it, the slight patter on the slim metal window sills, and then he heard the sound of birds – small birds chirping, but he could not see them. And the idea of this, that there might be a nest right outside his window where baby birds had woken in the rain and found their mother gone, made him want to rescue them. He felt my mother’s limp fingers, which had loosened their hold on his hand in sleep. She was here, and this time, despite all, he was going to let her be who she was.
It was then that I slipped inside the room with my mother and father. I was present somehow, as a person, in a way I had never been. I had always hovered but had never stood beside them.
I made myself small in the darkness, unable to know if I could be seen. I had left him for hours every day for eight and a half years as I had left my mother or Ruth and Ray, my brother and sister, and certainly Mr. Harvey, but he, I now saw, had never left me. His devotion to me had made me know again and again that I had been beloved. In the warm light of my father’s love I had remained Susie Salmon – a girl with my whole life in front of me.
“I thought if I was very quiet I would hear you” he whispered. “If I was still enough you might come back.”
“Jack?” my mother said, waking. “I must have fallen asleep,”
“It’s wonderful to have you back,” he said.
And my mother looked at him. Everything stripped away. “How do you do it?” she asked.
“There’s no choice, Abbie,” he said. “What else can I do?” “Go away, start over again,” she said.
“Did it work?”
They were silent. I reached out my hand and faded away.
“Why don’t you come lie down up here?” my father said. “We have a little time before the enforcers come on duty and kick you out.”
She didn’t move.
“They’ve been nice to me,” she said. “Nurse Eliot helped me put all the flowers in water while you slept.”
He looked around him and made out their shapes. “Daffodils,” he said.
“It’s Susie’s flower.”
My father smiled beautifully. “See,” he said, “that’s how. You live in the face of it, by giving her a flower.”
“That’s so sad,” my mother said. “Yes,” he said, “it is.”
My mother had to balance somewhat precariously on one hip near the edge of his hospital bed, but they managed. They managed to stretch out together beside each other so they could stare into each other’s eyes.
“How was it seeing Buckley and Lindsey?”
“Incredibly hard,” she said. They were silent for a moment and he squeezed her hand.
“You look so different,” he said. “You mean older.”
I watched him reach up and take a strand of my mother’s hair and loop it around her ear. “I fell in love with you again while you were away,” he said.
I realized how much I wished I could be where my mother was. His love for my mother wasn’t about looking back and loving something that would never change. It was about loving my mother for everything-for her brokenness and her fleeing, for her being there right then in that moment before the sun rose and the hospital staff came in. It was about touching that hair with the side of his fingertip, and knowing yet plumbing fearlessly the depths of her ocean eyes. My mother could not bring herself to say “I love you.”
“Will you stay?” he asked. “For a while.”
This was something.
“Good,” he said. “So what did you say when people asked you about family in California?”
“Out loud I said I had two children. Silently I said three. I always felt like apologizing to her for that.”
“Did you mention a husband?” he asked. And she looked at him. “No.” “Man,” he said.
“I didn’t come back to pretend, Jack,” she said. “Why did you come back?”
“My mother called me. She said it was a heart attack and I thought about your father.”
“Because I might die?” “Yes.”
“You were sleeping,” he said. “You didn’t see her.” “Who?”
“Someone came in the room and then left. I think it was Susie.” “Jack?” my mother asked, but her alarm was only at half-mast. “Don’t tell me you don’t see her.”
She let go.
“I see her everywhere,” she said, breathing out her relief. “Even in California she was everywhere. Boarding buses or on the streets outside schools when I drove by. I’d see her hair but it didn’t match the face or I’d see her body or the way she moved. I’d see older sisters and their little brothers, or two girls that looked like sisters and I imagined what Lindsey wouldn’t have in her life-the whole relationship gone for her and for Buckley, and then that would just hit me, because I had left too. It would just spin onto you and even to my mother.”
“She’s been great,” he said, “a rock. A spongelike rock, but a rock.” “So I gather.”
“So if I tell you that Susie was in the room ten minutes ago, what would you say?”
“I’d say you were insane and you were probably right.”
My father reached up and traced the line of my mother’s nose and brought his finger over her two lips. As he did, the lips parted ever so slightly.
“You have to lean down,” he said, “I’m still a sick man.”
And I watched as my parents kissed. They kept their eyes open as they did, and my mother was the one to cry first, the tears dropping down onto my father’s cheeks until he wept too.
After I left my parents in the hospital, I went to watch Ray Singh. We had been fourteen together, he and I. Now I saw his head on his pillow, dark hair on yellow sheets, dark skin on yellow sheets. I had always been in love with him. I counted the lashes of each closed eye. He had been my almost, my might-have-been, and I did not want to leave him any more than I did my family.
On the listing scaffold behind the stage, with Ruth below us, Ray Singh had gotten close enough to me so that his breath was near mine. I could smell the mixture of cloves and cinnamon that I imagined he topped his cereal with each morning, and a dark smell too, the human smell of the body coming at me where deep inside there were organs suspended by a chemistry separate from mine.
From the time I knew it would happen until the time it did, I had made sure not to be alone with Ray Singh inside or outside school. I was afraid of what I wanted most-his kiss. That it would not be good enough to match the stories everyone told or those I read in Seventeen and Glamour and Vogue. I feared that I would not be good enough-that my first kiss would equal rejection, not love. Still, I collected kiss stories.
“Your first kiss is destiny knocking,” Grandma Lynn said over the phone one day. I was holding the phone while my father went to get my mother. I heard him in the kitchen say “three sheets to the wind.”
“If I had it to do over again I would have worn something stupendous -like Fire and Ice, but Revlon didn’t make that lipstick back then. I would have left my mark on the man.”
“Mother?” my mother said into the bedroom extension. “We’re talking kiss business, Abigail.”
“How much have you had?”
“See, Susie,” Grandma Lynn said, “if you kiss like a lemon, you make lemonade,”
“What was it like?”
“Ah, the kiss question,” my mother said. “I’ll leave you to it.” I had been making my father and her tell it over and over again to hear their different takes. “What I came away with was an image of my parents behind a cloud of cigarette smoke-the lips only vaguely touching inside the cloud. A moment later Grandma Lynn whispered, “Susie, are you still there?”
She was quiet for a while longer. “I was your age, and my first kiss came from a grown man. A father of a friend.”
“Grandma!” I said, honestly shocked. “You’re not going to tell on me, are you?” “No.”
“It was wonderful,” Grandma Lynn said. “He knew how to kiss. The boys who kissed me I couldn’t even tolerate. I’d put my hand flat against their chests and push them away. Mr. McGahern knew how to use his lips.”
“So what happened?”
“Bliss,” she said. “I knew it wasn’t right, but it was wonderful- at least for me. I never asked him how he felt about it, but then I never saw him alone after that.”
“But did you want to do it again?”
“Yes, I was always searching for that first kiss.” “How about Grandaddy?”
“Not much of a kisser,” she said. I could hear the clink of ice cubes on the other end of the phone. “I’ve never forgotten Mr. McGahern, even though it was just for a moment. Is there a boy who wants to kiss you?”
Neither of my parents had asked me this. I now know that they knew this already, could tell, smiled at each other when they compared notes. I swallowed hard on my end. “Yes.”
“What’s his name?” “Ray Singh.”
“Do you like him?” “Yes.”
“Then what’s the holdup?”
“I’m afraid I won’t be good at it.” “Susie?”
“Just have fun, kid.”
But when I stood by my locker that afternoon and I heard Ray’s voice say my name-this time behind me and not above me-it felt like anything but fun. It didn’t feel not fun either. The easy states of black and white that I had known before did not apply.
I felt, if I were to say any word, churned. Not as a verb but as an adjective. Happy + Frightened = Churned.
“Ray,” I said, but before the name had left my mouth, he leaned into me and caught my open mouth in his. It was so unexpected, even though I had waited weeks for it, that I wanted more. I wanted so badly to kiss Ray Singh again. The following morning Mr. Connors cut out an article from the paper and saved it for Ruth. It was a detailed drawing of the Flanagan sinkhole
and how it was going to be filled in. While Ruth dressed, he penned a note to her. “This is a crock of shit,” it said. “Someday some poor sap’s car is going to fall into it all over again.”
“Dad says this is the death knell for him,” Ruth said to Ray, waving the clipping at him as she got into Ray’s ice blue Chevy at the end of her driveway. “Our place is going to be swallowed up in subdivision land. Get this. In this article they have four blocks like the cubes you draw in beginning art class, and it’s supposed to show how they’re going to patch the sinkhole up.”
“Nice to see you too, Ruth,” Ray said, reversing out of the driveway while making eyes at Ruth’s unbuckled seat belt.
“Sorry,” Ruth said. “Hello.”
“What does the article say?” Ray asked. “Nice day today, beautiful weather.” “Okay, okay. Tell me about the article.”
Every time he saw Ruth after a few months had passed, he was reminded of her impatience and her curiosity-two traits that had both made and kept them friends.
“The first three are the same drawing only with different arrows pointing to different places and saying ‘topsoil/ ‘cracked limestone,’ and ‘dissolving rock.’ The last one has a big headline that says, ‘Patching it’ and underneath it says, ‘Concrete fills the throat and grout fills the cracks ”
“Throat? “Ray said.
“I know” said Ruth. “Then there’s this other arrow on the other side as if this was such a huge project that they had to pause a second so readers could understand the concept, and this one says, “Then the hole is filled with dirt” Ray started laughing.
“Like a medical procedure,” Ruth said. “Intricate surgery is needed to patch up the planet.”
“I think holes in the earth draw on some pretty primal fears.” “I’ll say,” Ruth said. “They have throats, for God’s sake! Hey, let’s check this out.”
A mile or so down the road there were signs of new construction. Ray took a left and drove into the circles of freshly paved roads where the trees had been cleared and small red and yellow flags waved at intervals from the tops of waist-high wire markers. Just as they had lulled themselves into thinking that they were alone, exploring the roads laid out for a territory as yet uninhabited, they saw Joe Ellis walking up ahead.
Ruth didn’t wave and neither did Ray, nor did Joe make a move to acknowledge them.
“My mom says he still lives at home and can’t get a job.” “What does he do all day?” Ray asked. “Look creepy, I guess.”
“He never got over it Ray said, and Ruth stared out into the rows and rows of vacant lots until Ray connected with the main road again and they crossed back over the railroad tracks moving toward Route 30, which would take them in the direction of the sinkhole.
Ruth floated her arm out the window to feel the moist air of the morning after rain. Although Ray had been accused of being involved in my disappearance, he had understood why, knew that the police were doing their job. But Joe Ellis had never recovered from being accused of killing the cats and dogs Mr. Harvey had killed He wandered around, keeping a good distance from his neighbors and wanting so much to take solace in the love of cats and does- For me the saddest thing was that these animals smelled the brokenness in him-the human defect-and kept away.
Down Route 30 near Eels Rod Pike, at a spot that Ray and Ruth were about to Pass, I saw Len coming out of an apartment over Toe’s bar. He carried a lightly stuffed student knapsack out to his car. The knapsack had been the gift of the young woman who owned the apartment. She had asked him out for coffee on the day after they met down at the station as part of a
criminology course at West Chester College. Inside the knapsack he had a collection of things-some of which he would show my father and some that no child’s parent needed to see. The latter included the photos of the graves of the recovered bodies-both elbows there to each case-
When Len called tne hospital, the nurse had told him Mr. Salmon was with his wife and family. Now his guilt thickened as he pulled his car into the hospital parking lot and sat for a moment with the sun coming through the windshield, baking in the heat.
I could see Len working on how to state what he had to say. He could work with only one assumption in his head-after almost seven years of ever more dwindling contact since late 1975, what my parents would hope for most was a body or the news that Mr. Harvey had been found. What he had to give them was a charm.
He probed his knapsack and locked up the car, passing by the girl outside with her replenished buckets of daffodils. He knew the number of my father’s room, so he did not bother announcing himself to the fifth-floor nurses’ station but merely tapped lightly on my father’s open door before walking in.
My mother was standing with her back toward him. When she turned, I could see the force of her presence hit him. She was holding my father’s hand. I suddenly felt terribly lonely.
My mother wobbled a bit when she met Len’s eyes, and then she led with what came easiest.
“Is it ever wonderful to see you?” she tried to joke. “Len,” my father managed. “Abbie, will you tilt me up?”
“How are you feeling, Mr. Salmon?” Len asked as my mother pressed the up arrow button on the bed.
“Jack, please,” my father insisted.
“Before you get your hopes up,” Len said, “we haven’t caught him.” My father visibly deflated.
My mother readjusted the foam pillows behind my father’s back and neck. “Then why are you here?” she asked.
“We found an item of Susie’s,” Len said.
He had used almost the same sentence when he’d come to the house with the jingle-bell hat. It was a distant echo in her head.
The night before, as first my mother watched my father sleeping and then my father woke to see her head beside his on his pillow, they had both been staving off the memory of that first night of snow and hail and rain and how they had clung to each other, neither of them voicing aloud their greatest hope. Last night it had been my father who’d finally said it: “She’s never coming home.” A clear and easy piece of truth that everyone who had ever known me had accepted. But he needed to say it, and she needed to hear him say it.
“It’s a charm off her bracelet,” Len said. “A Pennsylvania keystone with her initials on it.”
“I bought that for her,” my father said. “At Thirtieth Street Station when I went into the city one day. They had a booth, and a man wearing safety glasses etched in initials for free. I brought Lindsey one too. Remember, Abigail?”
“I remember,” my mother said,
“We found it near a grave in Connecticut.”
My parents were suddenly still for a moment-like animals trapped in ice-their eyes frozen open and beseeching whoever walked above them to release them now, please.
“It wasn’t Susie,” Len said, rushing to fill the space. “What it means is that Harvey has been linked to other murders in Delaware and Connecticut. It
was at the grave site outside Hartford where we found Susie’s charm.”
My father and mother watched as Len fumbled to open the slightly jammed zipper of his knapsack. My mother smoothed my father’s hair back and tried to catch his eye. But my father was focused on the prospect Len presented-my murder case reopening. And my mother, just when she was beginning to feel on more solid ground, had to hide the fact that she’d never wanted it to begin again. The name George Harvey silenced her. She had never known what to say about him. For my mother, connecting her life to his capture and punishment spoke more about choosing to live with the enemy than about having to learn to live in the world without me.
Len pulled out a large Ziploc bag. At the bottom corner of the bag my parents could see the glint of gold. Len handed it to my mother, and she held it in front of her, slightly away from her body.
“Don’t you need this, Len?” my father asked.
“We did all the tests on it.” he said. “We’ve documented where it was found and taken the required photographs. The time may come when I would have to ask for it back, but until then, it’s yours to keep.”
“Open it, Abbie,” my father said.
I watched my mother hold open the bag and lean over the bed. “It’s for you, Jack,” she said. “It was a gift from you.”
As my father reached in, his hand shook, and it took him a second to feel the small, sharp edges of the keystone against the flesh of his fingers. The way he drew it out of the bag reminded me of playing the game Operation with Lindsey when we were little. If he touched the sides of the Ziploc bag an alarm would go off and he would have to forfeit.
“How can you be sure he killed these other girls?” my mother asked. She stared at the tiny ember of gold in my father’s palm.
“Nothing is ever certain,” Len said.
And the echo rang in her ears again. Len had a fixed set of phrases. It was this same phrase that my father had borrowed to soothe his family. It was a cruel phrase that preyed on hope.
“I think I want you to leave now,” she said. “Abigail?” my father queried.
“I can’t hear any more.”
“I’m very glad to have the charm, Len,” my father said.
Len doffed an imaginary cap to my father before turning to go. He had made a certain kind of love to my mother before she went away. Sex as an act of willful forgetting. It was the kind he made more and more in the rooms above the barbershop. I headed south toward Ruth and Ray, but I saw Mr. Harvey instead. He was driving an orange patchwork car that had been pieced together from so many different versions of the same make and model that it looked like Frankenstein’s monster on wheels. A bungee cord held the front hood, which fluttered up and down as it caught the oncoming air.
The engine had resisted anything but a shimmer above the speed limit no matter how hard he pressed the gas pedal. He had slept next to an empty grave, and while he’d been sleeping he had dreamed of the 5! 5! 5! waking near dawn to make the drive to Pennsylvania. The edges of Mr. Harvey seemed oddly blurred. For years he had kept at bay the memories of the women he killed, but now, one by one, they were coming back.
The first girl he’d hurt was by accident. He got mad and couldn’t stop himself, or that was how he began to weave it into sense. She stopped going to the high school that they were both enrolled in, but this didn’t seem strange to him. By that time he had moved so many times that he assumed that was what the girl had done. He had regretted it, this quiet, muffled rape of a school friend, but he didn’t see it as something that would stay with either one of them. It was as if something outside him had resulted in the collision of their two bodies one afternoon. For a second afterward, she’d stared. It was bottomless. Then she put on her torn underpants, tucking
them into her skirt’s waistband to keep them in place. They didn’t speak, and she left. He cut himself with his penknife along the back of his hand. When his father asked about the blood, there would be a plausible explanation. “See,” he could say, and point to the place on his hand. “It was an accident.”
But his father didn’t ask, and no one came around looking for him. No father or brother or policeman.
Then what I saw was what Mr. Harvey felt beside him. This girl, who had died only a few years later when her brother fell asleep smoking a cigarette. She was sitting in the front seat. I wondered how long it would take before he began to remember me. The only signs of change since the day Mr.
Harvey had delivered me up to the Flanagans’ were the orange pylons set around the lot. That and the evidence that the sinkhole had expanded. The house’s southeast corner sloped downward, and the front porch was quietly sinking into the earth. As a precaution, Ray parked on the other side of Flat Road, under a section of overgrown shrubbery. Even so, the passenger side skimmed the edge of the pavement. “What happened to the Flanagans?” Ray asked as they got out of his car.
“My father said the corporation that bought the property gave them a settlement and they took off.”
“It’s spooky around here, Ruth,” Ray said. They crossed the empty road. Above them the sky was a light blue, a few smoky clouds dotting the air. From where they stood they could just make out the back of Hal’s bike shop on the other side of the railroad tracks.
“I wonder if Hal Heckler still owns that?” Ruth said. “I had a crush on him when we were growing up.”
Then she turned toward the lot. They were quiet. Ruth moved in ever-diminishing circles, with the hole and its vague edge as their goal. Ray trailed just behind Ruth as she led the way. If you saw it from a distance, the sinkhole seemed innocuous-like an overgrown mud puddle just starting to dry out. There were spots of grass and weeds surrounding it and then, if you looked close enough, it was as if the earth stopped and a light cocoa-colored flesh began. It was soft and convex, and it drew in items placed on top of it.
“How do you know it won’t swallow us?” Ray asked. “We’re not heavy enough,” Ruth said. “Stop if you feel yourself sinking.”
Watching them I remembered holding on to Buckley s hand the day we went to bury the refrigerator. While my father was talking to Mr. Flanagan, Buckley and I walked up to the point where the earth sloped down and softened, and I swore I felt it give ever so slighdy beneath my feet. It had been the same sensation as walking in the graveyard of our church and suddenly sinking into the hollow tunnels that the moles had dug among the headstones. Ultimately it was the memory of those very moles-and the pictures of their blind, nosy, toothsome selves that I sought out in books -that had made me accept more readily being sunk inside the earth in a heavy metal safe. I was mole-proof, anyway.
Ruth tiptoed up to what she took to be the edge, while I thought of the sound of my father’s laughter on that long-ago day. I made up a story for my brother on the way home. How underneath the sinkhole there was a whole village inside the earth that no one knew about and the people who lived there greeted these appliances like gifts from an Earthly heaven. “When our refrigerator reaches them,” I said, “they will praise us, because they are a race of tiny repairmen who love to put things back together again.” My father’s laughter filled the car.
“Ruthie,” Ray said, “that’s close enough.”
Ruth’s toes were on the soft part, her heels were on the hard, and there was a sense as I watched her that she might point her fingers and raise her arms and dive right in to be beside me. But Ray came up behind her.
“Apparently,” he said, “the earth’s throat burps.”
All three of us watched the corner of something metal as it rose.
“The great Maytag of ‘sixty-nine,” Ray said. But it was not a washer or a safe. It was an old red gas stove, moving slow.
“Do you ever think about where Susie Salmon’s body ended up?” asked Ruth.
I wanted to walk out from underneath the overgrown shrubs that half hid their ice blue car and cross the road and walk down into the hole and back up and tap her gently on the shoulder and say, “It’s me! You’ve done it!
“No,” Ray said. “I leave that to you.”
“Everything is changing here now. Every time I come back something is gone that made it not just every other place in the country,” she said.
“Do you want to go inside the house?” Ray asked, but he was thinking of me. How his crush had come when he was thirteen. He had seen me walking home from school ahead of him, and it was a series of simple things: my awkward plaid skirt, my peacoat covered in Holiday’s fur, the way what I thought of as my mousy brown hair caught the afternoon sun so that the light moved fluidly from spot to spot as we walked home, one behind the other. And then, a few days later, when he had stood in social science class and accidentally read from his paper on Jane Eyre instead of the War of 1812-I had looked at him in a way he thought was nice.
Ray walked toward the house that would soon be demolished, and that had already been stripped of any valuable doorknobs and faucets late one night by Mr. Connors, but Ruth stayed by the sinkhole. Ray was already inside the house when it happened. As clear as day, she saw me standing there beside her, looking at the spot Mr. Harvey had dumped me.
“Susie,” Ruth said, feeling my presence even more solidly when she said my name. But I said nothing.
“I’ve written poems for you,” Ruth said, trying to get me to stay with her. What she had wished for her whole life happening, finally. “Don’t you want anything, Susie?” she asked. Then I vanished.
Ruth stood there reeling, waiting in the gray light of the Pennsylvania sun. And her question rang in my ears: “Don’t you want anything?”
On the other side of the railroad tracks, Hal’s shop was deserted. He had taken the day off and brought Samuel and Buckley to a bike show in
Radnor. I could see Buckley’s hands move over the curved front-wheel casing of a red minibike. It would be his birthday soon, and Hal and Samuel watched him. Hal had wanted to give Samuel’s old alto sax to my brother, but my Grandma Lynn had intervened. “He needs to bang on things, honey,” she said. “Save the subtle stuff.” So Hal and Samuel had chipped in together and bought my brother a secondhand set of drums.
Grandma Lynn was at the mall trying to find simple yet elegant clothes that she might convince my mother to wear. With fingers made dexterous from years of practice, she pulled a near-navy dress from a rack of black, I could see the woman near her alight on the dress in greenish envy. At the hospital, my mother was reading aloud to my father from a day-old Evening Bulletin, and he was watching her lips move and not really listening.
Wanting to kiss her instead. And Lindsey. I could see Mr. Harvey take the turn into my old neighborhood in broad daylight, past caring who spotted him, even depending on his standard invisibility-here, in the neighborhood where so many had said they would never forget him, had always thought of him as strange, had come easily to suspect that the dead wife he spoke of by alternate names had been one of his victims. Lindsey was at home alone.
Mr. Harvey drove by Kate’s house inside the anchor area of the development. Nate’s mother was picking the wilted blossoms from her front kidney-shaped flower bed. She looked up when the car passed. She saw the unfamiliar, patched-together car and imagined it was a college friend of one of the older children home for the summer. She had not seen Mr, Harvey in the driver’s seat. He turned left onto the lower road, which circled around to his old street. Holiday whined at my feet, the same kind of sick, low moan he would let out when we drove him to the vet.
Ruana Singh had her back to him. I saw her through the dining room window, alphabetizing stacks of new books and placing them in carefully kept bookshelves. There were children out in their yards on swings and pogo sticks and chasing one another with water pistols. A neighborhood full of potential victims.
He rounded the curve at the bottom of our road and passed the small municipal park across from where the Gilberts lived. They were both inside, Mr. Gilbert now infirm. Then he saw his old house, no longer green, though
to my family and me it would always be “the green house.” The new owners had painted it a lavendery mauve and installed a pool and, just off to the side, near the basement window, a gazebo made out of redwood, which overflowed with hanging ivy and children’s toys. The front flower beds had been paved over when they expanded their front walk, and they had screened in the front porch with frost-resistant glass, behind which he saw an office of some sort. He heard the sound of girls laughing out in the backyard, and a woman came out of the front door carrying a pair of pruning shears and wearing a sun hat. She stared at the man sitting in his orange car and felt something kick inside her-the queasy kick of an empty womb. She turned abruptly and went back inside, peering at him from behind her window. Waiting. He drove down the road a few houses further.
There she was, my precious sister. He could see her in the upstairs window of our house. She had cut all her hair off and grown thinner in the intervening years, but it was her, sitting at the drafting board she used as a desk and reading a psychology book. It was then that I began to see them coming down the road.
While he scanned the windows of my old house and wondered where the other members of my family were-whether my father’s leg still made him hobble-I saw the final vestiges of the animals and the women taking leave of Mr. Harvey’s house. They straggled forward together. He watched my sister and thought of the sheets he had draped on the poles of the bridal tent. He had stared right in my father’s eyes that day as he said my name. And the dog-the one that barked outside his house-the dog was surely dead by now.
Lindsey moved in the window, and I watched him watching her. She stood up and turned around, going farther into the room to a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. She reached up and brought another book down. As she came back to the desk and he lingered on her face, his rearview mirror suddenly filled with a black-and-white cruising slowly up the street behind him.
He knew he could not outrace them. He sat in his car and prepared the last vestiges of the face he had been giving authorities for decades-the face of a bland man they might pity or despise but never blame. As the officer pulled
alongside him, the women slipped in the windows and the cats curled around his ankles.
“Are you lost?” the young policeman asked when he was flush with the orange car.
“I used to live here,” Mr. Harvey said. I shook with it. He had chosen to tell the truth.
“We got a call, suspicious vehicle.”
“I see they’re building something in the old cornfield,” Mr. Harvey said. And I knew that part of me could join the others then, swoop down in pieces, each body part he had claimed raining down inside his car,
“They’re expanding the school.”
“I thought the neighborhood looked more prosperous,” he said wistfully.
“Perhaps you should move along,” the officer said. He was embarrassed for Mr. Harvey in his patched-up car, but I saw him jot the license plate down.
“I didn’t mean to scare anyone.”
Mr. Harvey was a pro, but in that moment I didn’t care. With each section of road he covered, I focused on Lindsey inside reading her textbooks, on the facts jumping up from the pages and into her brain, on how smart she was and how whole. At Temple she had decided to be a therapist. And I thought of the mix of air that was our front yard, which was daylight, a queasy mother and a cop-it was a convergence of luck that had kept my sister safe so far. Every day a question mark. Ruth did not tell Ray what had happened. She promised herself she would write it in her journal first.
When they crossed the road back to the car, Ray saw something violet in the scrub halfway up a high dirt berm that had been dumped there by a construction crew.
“That’s periwinkle,” he said to Ruth. “I’m going to clip some for my mom.”
“Cool, take your time,” Ruth said.
Ray ducked into the underbrush by the driver’s side and climbed up to the periwinkle while Ruth stood by the car. Ray wasn’t thinking of me anymore. He was thinking of his mother’s smiles. The surest way to get them was to find her wildflowers like this, to bring them home to her and watch her as she pressed them, first opening their petals flat against the black and white of dictionaries or reference books. Ray walked to the top of the berm and disappeared over the side in hopes of finding more.
It was only then that I felt a prickle along my spine, when I saw his body suddenly vanish on the other side. I heard Holiday, his fear lodged low and deep in his throat, and realized it could not have been Lindsey for whom he had whined. Mr. Harvey crested the top of Eels Rod Pike and saw the sinkhole and the orange pylons that matched his car. He had dumped a body there. He remembered his mother’s amber pendant, and how when she had handed it to him it was still warm.
Ruth saw the women stuffed in the car in blood-colored gowns. She began walking toward them. On that same road where I had been buried, Mr.
Harvey passed by Ruth. All she could see were the women. Then: blackout. That was the moment I fell to Earth.
Ruth collapsing into the road. Of this I was aware. Mr. Harvey sailing away unwatched, unloved, unbidden-this I lost.
Helplessly I tipped, my balance gone. I fell through the open doorway of the gazebo, across the lawn and out past the farthest boundary of the heaven I had lived in all these years.
I heard Ray screaming in the air above me, his voice shouting in an arc of sound. “Ruth, are you okay?” And then he reached her and grabbed on.
“Ruth, Ruth,” he yelled. “What happened?”
And I was in Ruth’s eyes and I was looking up. I could feel the arch of her back against the pavement, and scrapes inside her clothes where flesh had been torn away by the gravel’s sharp edges. I felt every sensation-the warmth of the sun, the smell of the asphalt-but I could not see Ruth.
I heard Ruth’s lungs bubbling, a giddiness there in her stomach, but air still filling her lungs. Then tension stretching out the body. Her body. Ray above, his eyes-gray, pulsing, looking up and down the road hopelessly for help that was not coming. He had not seen the car but had come through the scrub delighted, carrying a bouquet of wildflowers for his mother, and there was Ruth, lying in the road.
Ruth pushed up against her skin, wanting out. She was fighting to leave and I was inside now, struggling with her. I willed her back, willed that divine impossible, but she wanted out. There was nothing and no one that could keep her down. Flying. I watched as I had so many times from heaven, but this time it was a blur beside me. It was lust and rage yearning upward.
“Ruth,” Ray said. “Can you hear me, Ruth?”
Right before she closed her eyes and all the lights went out and the world was frantic, I looked into Ray Singh’s gray eyes, at his dark skin, at his lips I had once kissed. Then, like a hand unclasping from a tight lock, Ruth passed by him.
Ray’s eyes bid me forward while the watching streamed out of me and gave way to a pitiful desire. To be alive again on this Earth. Not to watch from above but to be-the sweetest thing- beside.
Somewhere in the blue blue Inbetween I had seen her-Ruth streaking by me as I fell to Earth. But she was no shadow of a human form, no ghost. She was a smart girl breaking all the rules. And I was in her body.
I heard a voice calling me from heaven. It was Franny’s. She ran toward the gazebo, calling my name. Holiday was barking so loud that his voice would catch and round in the base of his throat with no break. Then, suddenly, Franny and Holiday were gone and all was silent. I felt something
holding me down, and I felt a hand in mine. My ears were like oceans in which what I had known, voices, faces, facts, began to drown. I opened my eyes for the first time since I had died and saw gray eyes looking back at me. I was still as I came to realize that the marvelous weight weighing me down was the weight of the human body.
I tried to speak.
“Don’t,” Ray said. “What happened?”
I died, I wanted to tell him. How do you say, “I died and now I’m back among the living”?
Ray had kneeled down. Scattered around him and on top of me were the flowers he’d been gathering for Ruana. I could pick out their bright elliptical shapes against Ruth’s dark clothes. And then Ray leaned his ear to my chest to listen to me breathing. He placed a finger on the inside of my wrist to check my pulse.
“Did you faint?” he asked when these checked out.
I nodded. I knew I would not be granted this grace on Earth forever, that Ruth’s wish was only temporary.
“I think I’m fine,” I tried, but my voice was too faint, too far away, and Ray did not hear me. My eyes locked on to his then, opening as wide as I could make them. Something urged me to lift up. I thought I was floating back to heaven, returning, but I was trying to stand up.
“Ruth,” Ray said. “Don’t move if you feel weak. I can carry you to the car.”
I smiled at him, one-thousand-watted. “I’m okay,” I said.
Tentatively, watching me carefully, he released my arm but continued to hold on to my other hand. He went with me as I stood, and the wildflowers fell to the pavement. In heaven, women were throwing rose petals as they saw Ruth Connors.
I watched his beautiful face break into a stunned smile. “So you’re all right,” he said. Cautious, he came close enough to kiss me, but he told me he was checking my pupils to see if they were equal in size.
I was feeling the weight of Ruth’s body, both the luscious bounce of breasts and thighs but also an awesome responsibility. I was a soul back on Earth. AWOL a little while from heaven, I had been given a gift. By force of will I stood as straight as I could.
I tried to get used to the name. “Yes,” I said. “You’ve changed,” he said. “Something’s changed.”
We stood near the center of the road, but this was my moment. I wanted so much to tell him, but what could I say then? “I’m Susie, I have only a little time.” I was too afraid.
“Kiss me,” I said instead. “What?”
“Don’t you want to?” I reached my hands up to his face and felt the light stubble of a beard that had not been there eight years ago.
“What’s happened to you?” he said, bewildered,
“Sometimes cats fall ten flights out of the windows of highrises and land on their feet. You only believe it because you’ve seen it in print.”
Ray stared at me, mystified. He leaned his head down and our lips touched, tender. At the roots I felt his cool lips deep down inside me. Another kiss, precious package, stolen gift. His eyes were so close to me I saw the green flecks in the gray.
I took his hand, and we walked back to the car in silence. I was aware that he dragged behind, stretching my arm out behind me as we held hands and scanning Ruth’s body to make sure she was walking fine.
He opened the door of the passenger side, and I slid into the seat and placed my feet on the carpeted floor. When he came around to his side and ducked inside he looked hard at me once more.
“What’s wrong? “I asked.
He kissed me lightly again, on the lips. What I had wanted for so long. The moment slowed down, and I drank it in. The brush of his lips, the slight stubble of his beard as it grazed me, and the sound of the kiss-the small smack of suction as our lips parted after the pushing together and then the more brutal breaking away. It reverberated, this sound, down the long tunnel of loneliness and making do with watching the touch and caress of others on Earth. I had never been touched like this. I had only been hurt by hands past all tenderness. But spreading out into my heaven after death had been a moonbeam that swirled and blinked on and off-Ray Singh’s kiss.
Somehow Ruth knew this.
My head throbbed then, with the thought of it, with me hiding inside Ruth in every way but this-that when Ray kissed me or as our hands met it was my desire, not Ruth’s, it was me pushing out at the edges of her skin. I could see Holly, She was laughing, her head tilted back, and then I heard Holiday howling plaintively, for I was back where we had both once lived.
“Where do you want to go?” Ray asked.
And it was such a wide question, the answer so vast. I knew I did not want to chase after Mr. Harvey. I looked at Ray and knew why I was there. To take back a piece of heaven I had never known.
“Hal Heckler’s bike shop,” I stated firmly. “What?”
“You asked,” I said. “Ruth?”
“Can I kiss you again?”
“Yes,” I said, my face flushing.
He leaned over as the engine warmed and our lips met once more and there she was, Ruth, lecturing a group of old men in berets and black turtlenecks while they held glowing lighters in the air and called her name in a rhythmic chant. Ray sat back and looked at me. “What is it?” he asked.
“When you kiss me I see heaven,” I said. “What does it look like?”
“It’s different for everyone.”
“I want details,” he said, smiling. “Facts.” “Make love to me,” I said, “and I’ll tell you.”
“Who are you?” he asked, but I could tell he didn’t know what he was asking yet.
“The car is warmed up,” I said.
His hand grabbed the shiny chrome stick on the side of the steering wheel and then we drove-normal as day-a boy and a girl together. The sun caught the broken mica in the old patched pavement as he made the U-turn,
We drove down to the bottom of Flat Road, and I pointed to the dirt path on the other side of Eels Rod Pike, which led up to a place where we could cross the railroad tracks.
“They’ll have to change this soon,” Ray said as he shot across the gravel and up onto the dirt path, The railroad stretched to Harrisburg in one direction and Philadelphia in the other, and all along it buildings were being razed and old families were moving out and industrial tenants in.
“Will you stay here,” I asked, “after you’re done with school?” “No one does,” Ray said. “You know that.” I was almost blinded by it, this choice;
the idea that if I’d remained on Earth I could have left this place to claim another, that I could go anywhere I wanted to. And I wondered then, was it the same in heaven as on Earth? What I’d been missing was a wanderlust that came from letting go? We drove onto the slim patch of cleared earth that ran along either side of Hal’s bike shop. Ray stopped and braked the car. “Why here? “Ray asked. “Remember,” I said, “we’re exploring.”
I led him around to the back of the shop and reached up over the doorjamb until I felt the hidden key. “How do you know about that?”
“I’ve watched hundreds of people hide keys,” I said. “It doesn’t take a genius to guess.”
Inside it was as I remembered it, the smell of bike grease heavy in the air. I said, “I think I need to shower. Why not make yourself at home?”
I walked past the bed and turned on the light switch on the cord-all the tiny white lights above Hal’s bed glittered then, the only light save the dusty light coming from the small back window.
“Where are you going?” Ray asked. “How do you know about this place?” His voice had a frantic sound it hadn’t just a moment before.
“Give me just a little time, Ray,” I said. “Then I’ll explain.”
I walked into the small bathroom but kept the door slightly ajar. As I took Ruth’s clothes off and waited for the hot water to heat up, I hoped that Ruth could see me, could see her body as I saw it, its perfect living beauty.
It was damp and musty in the bathroom, and the tub was stained from years of having anything but water poured down its drain. I stepped up into the old claw-foot tub and stood under the water. Even at the hottest I could make it, I still felt cold. I called Ray’s name. I begged him to step inside the room.
“I can see you through the curtain,” he said, averting his eyes. “It’s okay,” I said. “I like it. Take your clothes off and join me.”
“Susie,” he said, “you know I’m not like that.”
My heart seized up. “What did you say?” I asked. I focused my eyes on his through the white translucent liner Hal kept for a curtain-he was a dark shape with a hundred small pinpoints of light surrounding him.
“I said I’m not that kind.” “You called me Susie.”
There was silence, and then a moment later he drew back the curtain, being careful to look only at my face.
“Join me,” I said, my eyes welling up. “Please, join me.”
I closed my eyes and waited. I put my head under the water and felt the heat of it prickling my cheeks and neck, my breasts and stomach and groin. Then I heard him fumbling, heard his belt buckle hit the cold cement floor and his pockets lose their change.
I had the same sense of anticipation then as I sometimes had as a child when I lay down in the back seat and closed my eyes while my parents drove, sure we would be home when the car stopped, that they would lift me up and carry me inside. It was an anticipation born of trust. Ray drew back the curtain. I turned to face him and opened my eyes. I felt a marvelous draft on the inside of my thighs. “It’s okay, “I said. He stepped slowly into the tub. At first he did not touch me, but then, tentatively, he traced a small scar along my side. We watched together as his ringer moved down the ribbony wound. “Ruths volleyball incident, nineteen seventy-five,” I said. I shivered again.
“You’re not Ruth,” he said, his face full of wonder. I took the hand that had reached the end of the cut and placed it under my left breast.
“I’ve watched you both for years,” I said. “I want you to make love to me.”
His lips parted to speak, but what was on his lips now was too strange to say out loud. He brushed my nipple with his thumb, and I pulled his head toward me. We kissed. The water came down between our bodies and wet the sparse hair along his chest and stomach. I kissed him because I wanted to see Ruth and I wanted to see Holly and I wanted to know if they could see me. In the shower I could cry and Ray could kiss my tears, never knowing exactly why I shed them.
I touched every part of him and held it in my hands. I cupped his elbow in my palm. I dragged his pubic hair out straight between my fingers. I held that part of him that Mr. Harvey had forced inside me. Inside my head I said the word gentle, and then I said the word man.
“I don’t know what to call you.” “Susie.”
I put my fingers up to his lips to stop his questioning. “Remember the note you wrote me? Remember how you called yourself the Moor?”
For a moment we both stood there, and I watched the water bead along his shoulders, then slip and fall.
Without saying anything further, he lifted me up and I wrapped my legs around him. He turned out of the path of the water to use the edge of the tub for support. When he was inside of me, I grabbed his face in my hands and kissed him as hard as I could. After a full minute, he pulled away. “Tell me what it looks like,”
“Sometimes it looks like the high school did,” I said, breathless. “I never got to go there, but in my heaven I can make a bonfire in the classrooms or run up and down the halls yelling as loud as I want. But it doesn’t always look like that. It can look like Nova Scotia, or Tangiers, or Tibet. It looks like anything you’ve ever dreamed.”
“Is Ruth there?”
“Ruth is doing spoken word, but she’ll come back.” “Can you see yourself there?”
“I’m here right now,” I said. “But you’ll be gone soon.”
I would not lie. I bowed my head. “I think so, Ray. Yes.”
We made love then. We made love in the shower and in the bedroom and under the lights and fake glow-in-the-dark stars. While he rested, I kissed him across the line of his backbone and blessed each knot of muscle, each mole and blemish.
“Don’t go.” he said, and his eyes, those shining gems, shut and I could feel the shallow breath of sleep from him.
“My name is Susie,” I whispered, “last name Salmon, like the fish.” I leaned my head down to rest on his chest and sleep beside him.
When I opened my eyes, the window across from us was dark red and I could feel that there was not much time left. Outside, the world I had watched for so long was living and breathing on the same earth I now was. But I knew I would not go out. I had taken this time to fall in love instead-in love with the sort of helplessness I had not felt in death-the helplessness of being alive, the dark bright pity of being human-feeling as you went, groping in corners and opening your arms to light-all of it part of navigating the unknown.
Ruth’s body was weakening. I leaned on one arm and watched Ray sleeping. I knew that I was going soon.
When his eyes opened a short while later, I looked at him and traced the edge of his face with my fingers.
“Do you ever think about the dead, Ray?” He blinked his eyes and looked at me.
“I’m in med school.”
“I don’t mean cadavers, or diseases, or collapsed organs, I mean what Ruth talks about. I mean us.”
“Sometimes I do,” he said. “I’ve always wondered.”
“We’re here, you know,” I said. “All the time. You can talk to us and think about us. It doesn’t have to be sad or scary.”
“Can I touch you again?” He shook the sheets from his legs to sit up.
It was then that I saw something at the end of Hal’s bed. It was cloudy and still. I tried to convince myself that it was an odd trick of light, a mass of dust motes trapped in the setting sun. But when Ray reached out to touch me, I didn’t feel anything.
Ray leaned close to me and kissed me lightly on the shoulder. I didn’t feel it. I pinched myself under the blanket. Nothing.
The cloudy mass at the end of the bed began to take shape now. As Ray slipped out of the bed and stood, I saw men and women filling the room.
“Ray,” I said, just before he reached the bathroom. I wanted to say I’ll miss you,” or “don’t go,” or “thank you.”
“You have to read Ruth’s journals.” “You couldn’t pay me not to,” he said.
I looked through the shadowy figures of the spirits forming a mass at the end of the bed and saw him smile at me. Saw his lovely fragile body turn and walk through the doorway. A tenuous and sudden memory.
As the steam began to billow out from the bathroom, I made my way, slowly, to the small child’s desk where Hal stacked bills and records. I began to think of Ruth again, how I hadn’t seen any of it coming-the
marvelous possibility that Ruth had dreamed of since our meeting in the parking lot. Instead, I saw how hope was what I had traded on in heaven and on Earth. Dreams of being a wildlife photographer, dreams of winning an Oscar in junior year, dreams of kissing Ray Singh once more. Look what happens when you dream.
In front of me I saw a phone and picked it up. Without thinking, I punched in the number to my house, like a lock whose combination you know only when you spin the dial in your hand. On the third ring, someone picked up.
“Hello, Buckley,” I said. “Who is this?”
“It’s me, Susie.”
“Susie, honey, your big sister.” “I can’t hear you,” he said.
I stared at the phone for a minute, and then I felt them. The room was full now of these silent spirits. Among them were children as well as adults. “Who are you? Where did you all come from?” I asked, but what had been my voice made no noise in the room. It was then that I noticed it. I was sitting up and watching the others, but Ruth was lying sprawled across the desk.
“Can you throw me a towel?” Ray yelled after shutting off the water. When I did not answer he pulled back the curtain. I heard him get out of the tub and come to the doorway. He saw Ruth and ran toward her. He touched her shoulder and, sleepily, she roused. They looked at each other. She did not have to say anything. He knew that I was gone. I remembered once, with my parents and Lindsey and Buckley, riding backward on a train into a dark tunnel. That was how it felt to leave Earth the second time. The
destination somehow inevitable, the sights seen in passing so many times. But this time I was accompanied, not ripped away, and I knew we were taking a long trip to a place very far away.
Leaving Earth again was easier than coming back had been. I got to see two old friends silently holding each other in the back of Hal’s bike shop, neither of them ready to say aloud what had happened to them. Ruth was both more tired and more happy than she had ever been. For Ray, what he had been through and the possibilities this opened up for him were just starting to sink in.