We talk about lost people, as if we knew. As if we knew what it means to be one, as if we knew where they went, when they wandered off the expected course and disappeared from social record. Lost people are everywhere, often we hardly notice, they look so much like ourselves. But then, who would ever consider themselves found? Often we hear about people who have “found” God (as if God were some lost person), and in the same reverential tones people have spoken about “finding themselves.” If they were lost, yet were able to go looking for themselves, all the while being themselves, where could they have gone? Why this habit of expressing such things as if they had a spatial character: that, over here, they once were, then that person they once were went walking, or was “led astray” (by whom? who could they have been following?), and so vanished and were nowhere to be found. Were so lost, in fact, that they could eventually be found by themselves—imagine! Easier to pity the lost people we know as acquaintances or old friends, those faint case histories who haunt the margins of anyone’s life. We, being Found People, know lostness when we see it. We feel it like a vibe running through the antennae of our bones. Their proximity to us, apparently, is not enough to make them found by association. Rather, they remain more lost, honestly, starkly so. Should they reach out and touch us, there is the danger of contamination, that they could soil our composure. And that is something no one with any self-respect should let happen. Let them go. Let them wander. Traveling down the switchbacks of their ruins, weighted down by addictions or curses of the mind, they search for the bottom, so we might watch and know how far we may fall. That they might also be finding something down there, we will need to remain innocent of, should we want to keep ourselves, hold ourselves, bind ourselves against the temptation to wander as well. “No Return” says the sign above the entry, not the exit. Above the exit, who knows what hangs there. Maybe no sign at all.
It had been ten years since he had visited the country. A full decade in close proximity to creatures who looked like him, talked like him, filled out his breath with mutual inhalation and exhalation. The city—but why give it a name? It had been good to him, you could say, had given him a life, that is, a job, a wife, friends, the feeling of being part of a place that would outlast him.
But then he received the call from his mother—his father was ill.
Then a second call—his father had died.
This was his regret. He had not answered his mother’s original call, nor had he called her back. Two months passed since her initial message, during which time his father had burrowed further into his illness and died.
He felt responsible—but why?
They’d never been particularly close, and before leaving the country he had even told them it would be the last time he would look around and see that landscape with his own eyes. It wasn’t the business of a grown man to moon over the house he was raised in, to linger too long after old acquaintances. If they were to meet again, parents and son, they would have to come visit him. He hadn’t intended it as a challenge, but as a statement of fact. Besides, it would provide them an excuse to leave that country every now and then, wouldn’t it, to visit him in that broader, brighter, busier place, the city?
But no, they hadn’t visited. And neither had he asked them to. There seemed to have been an agreement between them, which neither felt inclined to break. There was the city and there was the country, the parents and their son; they admired one another from afar, to the point of rarely missing the other.
Now his father was gone, and to console his mother he would need to return, sit in the living room of that house, assist in the necessary arrangements, and lastly, most certainly lastly, visit his father’s grave among the evenly mowed rows of the town’s one cemetery.
He was afraid though—of what? Of leaving the city. But why? For fear—could it be possible?—for fear of not being allowed to return, should he leave, even for a short while.
He delayed the trip for as long as manners would allow, then, with honest anxiety, took the train south and west, through the borderlands of what now seemed to him the known world. Trees appeared out his passenger window in increasing numbers, as if they were striding past him. He was entering the quieter, more obscure territories that nurtured them. But a tree is not a man, he told himself. Not by far.
At the station in that town which was surrounded by an expanse of countryside, no one was waiting for him. No old school friends, no aunts, cousins, uncles. A man mopped the tiled floor as if to make it ripe for studying oneself in its reflection. But other than that—not a soul. Not a body or a soul, nor even a hint of the void that both body and soul were supposed to have emerged from. Just a small open-aired building with a road leading up to it, and a parking lot part asphalt, part gravel.
Did he remember which direction he would need to go, to reach his mother’s house? No longer his father’s house, but now exclusively his mother’s? Yes, he did. Follow the road to another, smaller road, then turn left, south. Walk along that road until the fields enlarge around him, and cattle begin to spot the blond hillsides. An hour or so in that direction, another, even smaller road would intersect his path. From there, take a right, west. Two miles along that road, on the left, would be his mother’s, no-longer-his-father’s house. The trees alongside that road would be tall, full of leaf, acorns, ashes, elms.
It was as if imagining the way created the way before him. As he walked, his instincts were proven right at every turn. The roads did become gradually smaller, the hills did take on a yellow hue, cattle did laze on those grassy swells in miniature. A row of trees darkened the final mile to the house, which appeared much as he remembered it, the porch white, the awning shingled, the windows large and shuttered in a fashion popular from the previous century. It was an old world he was returning to, but it did not know it was so. This formed the core of its charm, and its strangeness. Behind that white front door sat his mother, at the kitchen table perhaps, all he would need to do to make her real would be to knock or ring the bell. But he could not do it. He stood a while on the porch, then walked back a soft retreat, to the end of the gravel drive. He stood there, his back to the road that had brought him there, watching the stillness of the house, imagining his mother, her precise movements, then, a dark turn of mind, his father, or rather his father’s remains, locked down in the dark of its coffin, beneath many pounds of dirt, perhaps the weight of one man, or several. His father not breathing, not blinking, dressed in a suit that in life had been foreign to him. His hands crossed across his abdomen, in an attitude curious for one so dead, as if, facing upwards, he were paying respects to the sky.
Without knowing why, that is what he imagined.
The trees fluttered above him, the breeze stirred the movement of shadows upon the ground. For miles in every direction, there were similar eyes and minds, the minds of mothers waiting for their sons, of sons hesitating before arriving to greet or console their mothers, and here he was, just one instance of this. It was too much. It had been too long. He had lived elsewhere without caring or knowing; who he had left behind, flattering himself for years thinking he’d outgrown them. How untrue that was. He’d simply been in a place that denied the existence of other places. Having been surrounded by people by the hundreds, the thousands, he’d perhaps forgotten the frightening presence of people in the singular, as they sat before you, and withheld any judgment or comment.
No, he could not do it now—knock, talk, look his mother in the face and see his own face reforming there, as a now much older woman, a widow, to watch his own face for some signal or reaction. That, he could not give her. That he could not give himself. But neither could he turn and walk back in the direction from which he came. That would be dishonest, cowardly. So what? Perhaps, for a while, he would stand there. Through the night, until morning. Through the morning and following afternoon, into the night that was sure to come from it. Maybe walking past a window, she would see him. Would open the window and wave. Then, given that moment of recognition, he would know what to do, would follow his duty. Would raise a hand to return her greeting, then, like the honest son he was, begin walking, not forward, but backward, filling the very steps that had brought him there. And if she cared as much as he seemingly didn’t, she would step off that porch without a change of clothes or purse or luggage, would follow him. The son walking backwards, the mother advancing fifty paces ahead of him, though technically behind him, back through that country, to the station, upon that train, to that no-man’s-land, that place where people arrive but rarely leave, that brighter nation, that hold of ghosts, the city.