CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|What Is Missing |
Take, for example, the phone call. Her father had used pasted-together phrases like “alleged suspicions,” “supposedly missing team member,” and “questioning process,” but then put more emphasis on such remarks as “your help and support,” and “ridiculous, out to get the coach,” and “so you know what’s happening.” The woman could hear background noise from his end, the television, ice cubes in a glass, and for some time she focused on that. But after listening for a while, the conversation accompanied by the boyfriend’s questioning looks, his whispering “What? Who is it?” and special churning sensations from her stomach, she could only close her eyes and lean against the wall. She chose to respond with something like “Yes, that’s crazy” and “Must be some mistake” and “It’ll all work out.”
“I’m sure they’ll find her,” she told him.
The phone call was officially over, relief realized, when he asked, “So, honey, how are things with you?”
Mostly, she would say it’s about love and loyalty and guilt.
The boyfriend tries to get her to talk (talk it out, he says) when he thinks she is upset, but for some reason she tends to focus on that catch-phrase that he uses; she imagines some kind of New-Age exorcism tactics or the necessity of shaking some part of her body very hard. She also knows, from trying to talk it out in the past, that he expects some kind of culmination point, when a nod or a smile signals that “it” is “out.” Sometimes she’ll lie to fake closure, but this night she just feigns calmness and goes to bed, her brain buzzing.
The next time the woman picks up the phone, her mother starts talking, asking briefly about her job and the boyfriend, but then wastes no time getting to hushed-tone gossip about this “business” with the missing girl.
“Horrible,” the mother says. “It’s on the news, and the police are everywhere. I’m sure your father told you, but what do they think he knows? He’s only the coach.”
“Sounds bad,” the woman admits.
“Poor girl, they’re so naive at that age. Probably got into some jerk’s car.”
“At fifteen?” the woman asks. “Naive?”
“Oh, they think they know everything, but really,” the mother says, “they’re still just little girls.”
“Mom, do you remember being fifteen?”
Her mother’s laugh sounds shrill through the phone wire. “Of course I do,” she says.
She has to look at the TV Guide to find Portland’s right number for Boston-area channel 38, and so then presses number 67 on the remote. A chart with bright colors projects the week’s weather (typical November clouds and rain) and then the screen shows a reporter standing outside Quincy High School, microphone in hand. The reporter points to the building, identifying the location where Anna Westphall was last seen. After basketball practice, the reporter explains, the girl told her friends that she was staying late to practice foul shots in the gym. No one saw her after that.
Then the reporter is gone and a young girl’s picture fills the screen: a round-faced blond with a wide smile and clear, blue eyes, who looks almost trapped with her vivaciousness inside the four walls of her photo. She has a face of pure promise, a billboard to the world: I am young and nothing can hurt me.
The Quincy H. S. girls’ basketball team, led by Senior Captain Mindy McGowan, meets several times a week in the woods off Perkins Street. Whatever has been smuggled is consumed. When new members show up for tryouts, they are invited out for a party at a fake address on Perkins, which turns out to be several team members huddled around somebody’s mother’s Buick. New members are forced to prove their worth in various ways; those who fail inevitably drop their plans to play for the team.
The team remains undefeated over the last four seasons.
Two nights after the father’s phone call, Anna’s mother appears on the news, asking for the return of her daughter. The woman watches, through fuzzy reception, as the mother’s eyes dart from side to side instead of looking to the camera. She appears to be glaring at something behind the cameraman, as if he is in the way.
Then, quickly, the mother’s attention steadies and she pleads: “If you know anything, anything at all about my daughter, please call. Please help me.”
As they look at each other from across their kitchen table, dirty dinner dishes gathering crust and puddles of shiny sauce, the boyfriend says to her: “I don’t see why this is such a problem.” “I know,” she says. “It’s just—”
“It’s just the same thing over and over. Really, that’s what it feels like. And I’m so … I’m starting to feel …”
“I’ve got a lot of stuff—”
“There’s always a lot of stuff. Can I tell you something? There always will be. So we’ve got to do this, or—”
“I’m not … this isn’t how I want to be, it’s like threatening or something?” The boyfriend arranges dirty silverware on his plate, three utensils lined up at angles. “But I don’t understand what’s happening.”
“I mean, it’s not like I’m asking you to do something terrible. This should be happy. Right?” he asks quietly as he reaches for her hand and rubs the bare ring finger. “Right?”
She smiles at him and gives his hand a squeeze but says nothing. She looks away and he stares, maybe waits for her to come back, which she doesn’t.
Finally he gets up from the table and drops her hand. “You’re not even listening to me.” “I am,” she insists, as he walks past her. “I am.”
“You’re not. It’s like I’m talking to myself,” he says and he grabs his coat from the hook on the wall. “Let me know when you feel like having a conversation. I’ll be back later,” he adds.
She doesn’t have the dream she thinks she does. No matter how many times it happens, she can replace the face, the setting, in the time it takes to wake up and rearrange things.
The woman works late for the next two nights, and both nights the boyfriend tells her that the father had called and left messages sometime in the middle of the day. He saves them (little red blinking lights) for her, but she never listens, hits the PLAY button and turns the volume all the way down.
She starts to see the girl’s face everywhere. Places she goes, the girl shows up too, flaunting her easy smile, her white teeth, her giggly laugh. Always in the middle of a group of teenagers, she reveals a flushed face, her head tilted back in a grin. If the woman lets her guard down for a second, the girl appears in her peripheral vision. She’s in the back seat of the car when the woman checks her rear-view mirror; in the apartment hallway, she’s the shadow that quickly slips around the corner.
“Is there something I’m not doing? Something I could … fix? Or—”
“No, no, that’s … I keep thinking about, you know, work and the …”
“No, it’s okay.”
“Is it this thing with your dad?”
“Oh, you mean, no, no. It’s … no. I’m sure it’s no big deal.”
“I don’t know.”
“How can you not know? What does that mean?”
“Don’t get mad!”
“I’m not mad.”
“I, no, don’t, just stay here for a second. Don’t—”
The woman doesn’t spend any time wondering how to phrase the obvious question.
The streets of Portland belong to the young girl. Leaving Gritty’s Bar late on a Monday night, the woman feels her ankle turn in the slush over cobblestones. She instinctively reaches out at the coat of a person in front of her and when the person turns, she sees that same smile, that clear-eyed face.
“Sorry,” she says to the girl.
“Not your fault,” the girl tells her. “It’s slippery.”
She imagines asking her: Do you have the weird dreams of a fifteen-year-old, or do you just think about the next day’s fun? Do you know that you are beautiful to other people, to men? Do you care?
Maybe it all gets to be too much, and more and more the woman has to leave the apartment, the television, the phone, more and more often, and so she goes back to Gritty’s and there the hours fly. One damp night, she dances drunkenly with a man named J. T. who says he lives above the bar. He tells her he’s a painter. When she asks what kind of stuff he paints, he says houses. Mostly out in the suburbs, he says.
She remembers little after that.
No, wait. She vaguely remembers the room. She vaguely remembers thinking who could care and as he closes the door she thinks why am I wasting so much time. Turning back toward the door, they are face to face and, given a dread few moments of nothing to say, she lightly pushes him back against the door. As she kneels down in front of him, she hears her knees crack.
Sleet patters on a window somewhere over her head; the bare gray light falls like smog in the room. Her left leg is tangled in the sheet, and she kicks J. T. by accident while removing it.
“Hey,” he says, eyes closed, hand out.
Frantic but moving slowly, she searches the foreign apartment for her coat, her keys, her wallet. Putting her wrist close to her eyes, she can barely read her watch: little hand on the four.
“I can’t find my stuff,” she says out loud.
“Check downstairs,” the voice from the bed says. “Maybe Morgan’s still cleaning up.”
She raps on the reflection of her face, staring back from the old glass in Gritty’s door. Only the EXIT sign glows from inside the dark room. She uses her hands as blinders and looks farther in, sees no one, can’t make out any kind of objects on the bar or the tables. As she steps back, she sees her face too closely, then a little farther back and it gets smaller in the light, but the dark eye circles run deep. She stands there and watches herself cry. The rectangular window frame makes her look like a pathetic expressionist rendering; she imagines that if she stayed there long enough, the sleet and the tears would melt her whole face. She wants to wait and watch, to see if it really happens, but then the sleet begins to run down her scalp, so she turns and walks home.
Her wallet contains the following items: driver’s license, Social Security card with fourth-grade signature, two maxed-out credit cards, five-dollar bill, some change, First Bank of Maine bank card, outdated Boston College ID, Portland Public Library card, old (6/93) Quincy Public Library card, high school photo of best friend, elementary school photo of cousin, six-year-old family photo with forced Olan Mills formality, boyfriend’s college photo, Appalachian Mountain Club membership card, two laminated video store membership cards, coupon for free consultation at Mae’s House of Tarot, and an old unused Band-Aid, still in its wrapper.
In actuality, there were two versions of the same phone message, on the same tape. One was polite and brief, the other, left an hour later, a little longer. One version of the message was this: Where have you been? Please call me back, soon.
The boyfriend heard the messages; after packing the last of his things into his car, he wrote on a scrap of paper near the phone: Call your father. Take care of yourself. I’ll be at Jerry’s.
When a woman from the bar stole the coat, she found the wallet in the pocket, opened it briefly, then threw it in a trash can on the street, removing only the five-dollar bill. She used the bill to buy cigarettes and a Big Gulp (Mountain Dew) shortly thereafter.
Pulling out the spare key from a crevice near the apartment door frame, the woman notices the previous day’s mail, still in the box. Three pieces of mail, all addressed to OCCUPANT. Then, opening the door, she sees exactly half the number of coats that are supposed to hang from the hooks on the wall, a large space on the coffee table where the stack of books belongs, and two white squares above the desk, revealed fade marks from framed photos. She turns to check the answering machine but sees no light.
The woman recognizes the same reporter (different blazer), this time in front of a white three-story home. Even with the bad reception, the woman can tell that the lawn is well-manicured and still very green, not like the rumply scraps of usual November grass.
Pointing over his shoulder, the reporter explains that Anna Westford (the woman, watching, says “Westphall!” to the television) was returned to her home early that morning. Her mother found her unconscious on the front lawn, but at the time of the broadcast, Massachusetts General Hospital lists Anna in stable condition.
Authorities, the reporter continues, will not report yet on whether there were signs of sexual assault, but have implied that drugs were involved. Police have several leads, he insists, but will need the girl’s help in arresting any suspects.
The woman turns off the television and scans the half-empty apartment. Because no one has pulled down the shades, street lights off raindrops flash across the room. She hears the phone ring and walks toward it. She picks up the receiver then places it right back down in the cradle.
Then, she picks it up again and begins to dial out.