Celine calls me because she wants to hear a familiar voice. I think she’s calling because she’s in trouble but doesn’t quite know how to ask for help. Independence has its price, often a big price.
She can’t, however, give me any details. She has a listener, she says, that’s what they call it. She has a watcher, too, who’s taking a break as the listener listens to her call.
“He doesn’t understand English,” Celine says, “but I’m trying to be safe.”
“Sounds reasonable,” I tell her. “Are you all right?”
“Most of the time I have a chain on my ankle with the other end of the chain locked around a tree. It’s a big tree with lots of shade. This is a hot place so the shade is good. The tree drips, though, something sticky. I’m really sticky, dad.”
“Are you alone?” I ask her.
“You mean the office?” she says, “The people?”
“We’re all here,” she says. “Separate trees.”
“You’re giving me details,” I tell her.
“Maybe it doesn’t matter,” Celine says. “Did I tell you my listener doesn’t understand English?”
“Yes,” I say.
Sometimes I wish my child had been dull and lacking in ambition, a birth statistic and little more, satisfied with a high school education and a clerkship in one of those stores that changes its name every few years.
Celine, though, took her mother’s death in another direction – studying it sharply, mulling the causes (many), and concluding that she would have to complete two lives: hers and her mother’s, a daughter’s duty.
“She walked away,” Celine told me once. “That’s what it felt like.”
“Necessary steps,” I said. “Walking is a good way to put it. She looked back, though, many times. It was a long walk.”
“You used to tell her she had a nice butt,” Celine said.
“I did, didn’t I?” I said.
“I thought it was cute,” she said, “that you’d single out something like that.”
“She always said she liked my shoulders,” I said.
“I know,” said Celine. “Then you’d argue over who was the smartest. Not many kids hear their parents talk like that.”
Then the line went dead.
Celine powered her way through majors in business, music, and French in college, along with all the ancillary activities an ambitious kid takes on. I had her valedictorian’s speech published in a small booklet and put one copy on her mother’s grave. Feeling oddly unsentimental as I placed it there, I simply said, “You need to have this.”
Then Celine took on New York City and, when that didn’t prove “big” enough, tried London and then Paris. I lost track of what all those jobs were, but I knew they didn’t involve a lot of money because she’d write or phone now and then and ask for “a bit of eleemosynary support.”
I had to look the word up.
“This is a marathon,” I said to her on her thirtieth birthday. I don’t even remember where she was for that call. “Where is the finish line?”
“We both know the answer to that,” she said.
“I know, sweetheart,” I said. “It’s just that I haven’t seen you in a long time.”
“I have a new job,” she said, “so it’ll be even longer before I see you again – probably a year. But after that I’ll have regular paid leaves back to the States. Be patient, pop.”
“I am that,” I said, “like a snake eating a cat.”
“Oh my,” she said. “Thanks, though.”
“For what?” I said. “Creepy images?”
“No, silly,” she said. “For the birthday call.”
I hung up the phone after Celine said she would call again, that her watchers and listeners didn’t seem too bothered by telephone calls.
“They know,” she said, “that the calls have a calming effect. They’re not a large group so I’m sure they have a few worries about management.”
“Management?” I said.
“Us,” she said. “Our handling. I’m sure they know that none of us has anyone to call who isn’t thousands of miles away. And …”
“Yes?” I said.
“Well,” she began, “it took three days for them to develop a decent way for us to shit and piss in accord with all this security they’re trying to maintain. We could, of course, offer consulting services but this is probably not the time.”
For a moment I wondered about coding since Celine had never used that kind of language to me before. Was this an oblique request? A way of translating this is quite an experience into for God’s sakes get us some help? A hint of times tougher than she could relate in front of a listener who didn’t know her language? Given, however, what little I knew, I decided it was better just to take her words as she said them and hope she could call again.
If I was encouraged, though, by Celine’s call and by her fairly normal talkativeness, my encouragement waned as I realized, once again, that I had no idea where she’d been calling from.
“Do I seem worried enough?” I said to Star.
Star’s a good friend and we take care of each other, maybe one of those friends where, the older you get, the less the old labels seem to apply. She is, as all her friends will say, sweet – a dusty blond who walks three miles every day with an old beagle whose name is Highway.
I once introduced her as my girlfriend and we both thought that sounded all right.
Star and I don’t quite live with each other but, every night, either I’m at her apartment or she’s at mine. I’ve never owned a dog, but I have a dog bed in my kitchen for Highway. It’s near one of the heating vents and the look on his face as he sleeps is one of pure bliss. I think I had the same experience one winter night after Star made my bed with fleece sheets.
“You don’t hide anything, Gary,” she said. “You never have. I think you’re just about out of your mind. That’s what I think.”
“Nothing I can do,” I said.
“Of course not,” she said.
Star’s a busy person, a bit impulsive. I think she’s forty-eight. She sells advertising for our weekly paper. She also cooks the meals for the pastor at St. Thomas More’s Church here in town. After a casual, joking comment I made one night, Star had one of her nipples pierced.
“Think of it as an engagement ring,” she said, “and you can interpret that any way you want.”
We both laughed over her risqué comment, but it was the first time in several years that I began to think maybe there could be another woman in my life, that there needn’t be anything about it of either desperation or betrayal. Love, I thought, sometimes it doesn’t have to be anything more than the belt that holds up your pants.
When I said that to Star she said, “I rather thought it was the opposite, Gary. You know, it’s love that gets your pants off.”
“I’ll try to find another metaphor,” I said, “but what you did – the ring – it’s pretty goofy but I appreciate it.”
“Lot of hot shots on the case,” I said to Star one night. She was as puzzled as I over this strangeness that had engulfed Celine. “Harvard grads and all that – the administration’s cowboys.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” Star said.
“They won’t, however, tell you what they’re doing, what the status of the situation is.”
“But they know their own,” she said, “us, and how to pull the strings when we’re in trouble.”
“It’s not even an American company, though,” I said.
“I’m not sure that matters anymore,” Star said. “I think most of us these days are pretty well persuaded that we work for the world.”
“They’re chained to trees, Star,” I said.
“Don’t expect me to gild that lily,” she said. “I was once tied up myself.”
“A high school prank,” she said. “Hung by my ankles on the crossbar of the football field goal post. It hurt.”
“Jesus,” I said. “I never would have thought of you as being the butt of anyone’s jokes.”
“I was fat back in those days,” she said, “which was like wearing a sign that said, ‘Hurt me. It’s what I do.’”
It was Celine’s voice, not strong. Desperately I blamed it on the cellphone connection. A weakness there, a satellite wobble in the voice, I could handle that. Celine, though, had to be strong because she was, well, Celine.
“I’m here, Celine,” I said. “It’s not a good connection but I can hear you okay.”
“Do I sound all right?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Are you all right?”
“Maybe,” she said. “It’s just that I haven’t talked to anyone in days, nor have I seen a mirror. I feel like I’m losing me a little bit.”
“Where are you, Celine?” I said.
“On the phone? Right now? I’m home,” she said. “which is why these calls are important to me. I bet Star’s sitting behind you on the couch watching you talk. I’ll put a drink in her hand, something strong. Maybe a Long Island tea. That sounds good.”
“That other place, though,” I began, “where they have the trees and the chains on your ankle.”
“I don’t think I know,” she said.
Celine could never do sarcasm very well so I knew that wasn’t her intent. Still, it sounded terse, feisty.
“I’m only trying to help,” I said, “or to see if there’s anything I can do that might be called help.”
“Oh, no, pop,” she said. “I wasn’t joking. When all this happened we’d been touring our field offices, sometimes two or three countries in a day. This was our last one that day, but I couldn’t tell you what our first one was, either.”
“Do they talk to you? These people with the chains?”
“In a language none of us have run into before,” she said. “We think they’re just a splinter group, tribal. I don’t know what we think now since they won’t let us talk to each other anymore.”
“Are they hurting you, Celine?” I asked. “I need to know it if they are.”
“Just the toes on one foot,” she said. “They broke those, but it’s not like I’m walking around very much. They’ve started to heal. Oh, the food’s not very good.”
“They broke your foot?” I said.
“Jimmy, our regional vice president,” she began. “Um – it’s like a movie almost. They know he’s in charge so I guess the idea was that if they hurt one of his staff then he would … well, we don’t know what. I did scream, though.”
Could I remain encouraging, upbeat, some sort of paternal rock this dissolving daughter could hold onto? Such a man thing, I thought. I wanted to scream at Star (who was sitting behind me on the couch), Do something!
Oddly, it all felt more like a simple conversation than any sort of survival liturgy, although I eventually began to think that survival for Celine might be this very thing – a grasping of the normal, a seeking out of a father’s not-too-severe judgments.
Getting nothing from the White House that was at all useful, both Star and I began researching our regional politicians. Those from the statehouse weren’t even sure I lived in their district, and I could never get anything more than a telephone chain out of the governor’s office. Much to my surprise, it was one of our U.S. senators who jumped right on my situation: Carole O’Dell Evergreen.
“There’s been nothing in the news,” I began when I met her in her local office, “of a hostage situation involving American workers.”
“Don’t be surprised by that, Mr. Overland,” she said. “These things happen all the time.”
“All the time?” I said.
“A good many global companies even budget for them,” she said. “But your daughter’s group – it’s medical?”
“I think so,” I said. “She hasn’t been with them all that long so I’m not sure just what they do.”
“I can make inquiries,” she said. “No promises, of course. Diplomacy often moves its mountains by taking a cup of water from an unrelated stream.”
“I understand that,” I said. “I appreciate your help.”
“They’ve been sold,” I said to Star several weeks later. We were at Zella’s Eatery for the Friday night fish fry, one of the smaller high points in the week of a small town. “One of Evergreen’s staffers called me today.”
“Sold?” Star said. “What does that mean? Jesus, Gary, what’s happening?”
“It’s a tribal thing, they said. But it’s not like … slavery? It’s not like that, not like they’re hauling water from distant wells or standing over a master waving an ostrich feather fan.”
“Okay,” Star said. “Commodities, then – supply and demand. Tribe X says ‘this is good stuff but, hey, if you got the scratch we can always sell.’ Tribe Y, I suppose, figuratively kicks the tires, money is exchanged, and the world is once again safe for hedge funds.”
“That’s probably more thought than is involved in all of this,” I said, “and more cynicism than I’ve ever heard you spout.”
“Spout?” she said.
“Articulate,” I said.
“I prefer spout,” she said.
“My point,” she began, “is that tonight is the first time I’ve seen you eat a meal in days, and you’re drinking in the morning so that you can be sober at night in case she calls.”
“Those calls are important,” I said. “Maybe lifesaving.”
“Which misses the point completely,” said Star.
I was reading four newspapers a day and combing the internet for geopolitical anomalies. Gradually, I became familiar with crisis spots, powerful leaders who never make it onto the international news wires, shaky political regimes, and bit players with names stolen from Shakespeare or names so unpronounceable I had to categorize them with numbers. I began to remember a simpler time when the only global problem we might have was a famine in Ethiopia or some rogue dictator who fancied feeding his enemies to large fishes.
“They’ve been sold again,” Senator Evergreen told me on the phone. “Which means?” I said.
“They’re in motion,” she said, “like a product. That sounds coarse, but it means they’ve accumulated some kind of value. That’s good.”
“That’s good?” was all I could think of to say.
“Mr. Overland,” she began, “quite frankly, it means they’re not hated. We’re not talking about vengeance, only simple economics. Someone’s looking for a trade, perhaps holding them up as a bargain. This motion, though, is good. They’re not exactly being hidden, so we can track them, perhaps act when there’s some kind of final disposition.”
That phrase, of course, final disposition, I found chilling even though I knew what the senator meant.
“Mr. Overland?” the senator continued.
“I’m optimistic,” she said.
“I value your experience,” I said. “I don’t know what to feel one way or another.”
“I understand that. I’ll keep in touch.”
When Celine called the next time I had the oddest thought before I even said hello: Who’s charging her cellphone? Who’s paying the fee?
“I’ve been painted,” she said, “but I’m eating better. Much better.”
“Is there any way out of this?” I said. “Are you seeing an ending anywhere down the road?”
“We go through translators like chips go through dip,” she said, “but the last two have both called me princess.”
“You’ve been painted?” I said. “They call you princess?”
“Completely white,” she said. “Snow white – no allusion intended. One of the fellows I work with – his name is Donnie – looked over at me while I was being painted and said, ‘Jesus, the clerical staff is a fucking queen now.’”
“I thought your job was a bit higher than that,” I said.
“It is – or was,” she said. “But one of the translators heard that remark and after about an hour’s worth of talk a man walked over to Donnie and cut his throat.”
“Oh, Christ,” I said. “That’s terrible. What about the others – your group, your company?”
“Very strange,” Celine said. “They’re setting us up like some special kind of tribal group with me at the top. The others understand that, even down to wearing nothing but underpants and taking care of my every need. My boss gets my food, and his top assistant takes care of my toilet needs. I’ve had to invent a lot of other needs, though. I’m afraid if I don’t keep everyone busy they’ll start getting rid of them.”
“That’s every manager’s nightmare,” I said. “Actually, it all sounds kind of oddly corporate.”
“I think it’s all a game,” she said.
“Donnie?” she said. “When they cut his throat? He died but he didn’t bleed. How could that happen, daddy?”
My mind wandered quickly from medicine to magic. I started to say he might have been dead already, but of course the dead can’t make insulting comments about painted princesses. Perhaps strange drugs; perhaps he was simply tired.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Are you still being moved around?”
“No,” she said. “We’re in a warehouse in a good sized town, maybe a city.”
“Maybe that’s good,” I said.
“I don’t know,” she said. “If this is my kingdom, it seems a bit industrial.”
I had never received a telegram before. In fact, I could have sworn I’d read that Western Union no longer even offered that service. Still, I’d seen enough movies to know that a telegram never meant good news.
Not this time, the bad news – not quite.
It was from the senator and had instructions for me to go to a place in Kansas where Celine would be delivered. It was brief; it was terse.
Go to Yaggy, near Hutchinson KS. Shipping taken care of.
Three A.M. on the tenth. You don’t have to pay.
Star said we could drive it in a day straight through, that she would come along and we’d share the driving to this place called Yaggy somewhere near Hutchinson, Kansas, that she would come along because she had an interest in this, in my daughter, after all.
“Wounded, too, you know,” Star said, “so to speak. She’ll be that. Or politically abused. Or impregnated with a quart of revolutionary semen. Or maybe wretched with hunger. Anyway, at the very least she might need help going to the bathroom on the way home.”
“You don’t have to persuade me, Star,” I said.
”I need your help,” I said. “For political reasons the senator herself doesn’t want to be involved at this point, so I’m dealing with the second assistant director to an assistant director of something in the senator’s office. I’ve been given directions to an airstrip that doesn’t show up on any maps, near a city I visited long ago with a girlfriend I’ve never stopped thinking about, and supposedly I’ll find my daughter exiting an unmarked plane just in from a country and a continent I’ve yet to figure out.”
“You’ve never told me about this girlfriend,” Star said, “the one you still think about.”
“That was to get your attention,” I said, “though it is true. Mostly, I just meant I’m going to be feeling a whole lot of things and I don’t want to screw this up; you know, miss a turn or end up in Oklahoma or greet my daughter with onions on my breath from a burger I shouldn’t have eaten.”
Star told me to calm down and to breathe deeply. She had, she said, had the car serviced at the dealer that afternoon and she’d filled the tank.
“We can leave as soon as you pack a few things,” she said. “My bag’s already in the car. If we leave within the hour we should have a four or five hour cushion for getting lost or messing up. I don’t think that will happen, though. I printed out some maps. She’s coming in when?”
“Three A.M.,” I said. “A small transport plane – military, I think.”
“So we leave normal behind,” Star said, “and embrace the stuff of television programs you don’t watch.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Sudden journeys, strange planes from places unknown, airstrips in the middle of nowhere. Do you need a code word, a secret password, a red rose in the lapel of your jacket?”
“I just need to pick up my daughter somewhere in Kansas,” I said.
“I know, darling,” Star said, “and I’m with you every step of the way.”
Star’s few comments, though, were a bit haunting. Indeed was I about to put my ordinary self into my ordinary car with my ordinary girlfriend and drive to a truly ordinary part of the country, there to embrace a geopolitical puzzle the solution to which involved the very survival of my daughter. It reminded me of the young girl who disappeared from an island in the Caribbean, foul play suspected. A school trip, that’s all it was (though I wasn’t alone in wondering about the sort of school that sends its students to the Caribbean), yet within days her parents were choreographing press conferences and appearing on the national news. They appeared distraught, yet competent, schooled in media ways and wiles. Questions needed to be answered. The authorities were/were not helpful. While sympathetic, I also wondered where people suddenly found the skills to do these things.
Well – Star had gotten the car all ready to go, printed some maps, and packed a bag. Maybe it wasn’t any more complicated than that.
I drove hard and I drove fast. We didn’t stop anywhere to rest but we stopped often for coffee or cigarettes or something to eat. Our departure at six A.M. turned quickly to dawn with the morning and afternoon a blur of gas stations, empty fields, leafless forests, frozen lakes and rivers.
Star offered to drive many times but I kept saying I was all right, I wasn’t tired, I needed to do this, needed for my daughter to know in some mystical sense that her air miles were intimately wrapped into my land miles, that we were converging and soon the strangeness would end. No longer would she need to be painted into an identity; no longer would she need to worry that the next minute’s or the next hour’s thug would put a bullet into her brain or a penis into her vagina or torture her into confessing crimes she couldn’t even comprehend, let alone commit.
I was roast beef. I was Pop Tarts. I was every vegan dish she might want and I was brand new flip-flops and thong panties and a subscription to Time magazine, along with dependable mail service, air fresheners, her favorite toothpaste (Tom’s of Maine), Kleenex, a hair stylist, and Friday afternoon Happy Hour at a bar in a city following a week’s work at a job where not a single one of her co-workers had had his throat cut but didn’t bleed.
“Why didn’t he bleed?” I said to Star.
“Honey?” she said.
I realized I’d just pulled her into a train of thought she hadn’t been sharing. We stopped for coffee then. I stretched and watched Star walk off to the rest room, Star a toucher with her fingers giving a light caress to anything she passed.
My oil light had been flickering for a couple of hours so I checked the oil. Down a bit, no doubt from averaging over eighty miles an hour. Our time was good so I decided to back off on the speed a bit. I bought a quart of oil and Star bought a couple of corn dogs. I thought the oil might have tasted better, but we were in a world then where the usual things didn’t apply – sleep, taste, all the minor proprieties. Star peed in a Coke cup at one point because I was timing us from one place – maybe St. Louis – to another and wouldn’t stop.
I apologized and said, almost laughing, “That wasn’t very easy to do, was it?”
“About like you trying to pee in a beer bottle from ten feet away,” she said.
“We’ll have to tell Celine about it,” I said.
“She probably doesn’t need any stories about unusual ways to go to the bathroom,” Star said. “I’m sure that what she really wants is just tile and towels and toilet paper and hot water and soap that squirts out of a plastic bottle and maybe even a mirror that steams up and softens all your hard looks.”
“That would be a good mirror,” I said.
We drove on then, no longer bothering with the time because I knew we were doing all right, knew in fact we’d probably have to wait for some several hours and I wasn’t sure how we’d do that; well, I did know, and I also knew that Star would understand.
“This is Hutchinson,” I said.
We were in the center of the downtown and I stopped in the middle of the street – not a problem since it was just midnight.
“Do you recognize it?” Star asked.
“From when I was here before,” I began, “with the girl I still think about every day?”
“Who is also no longer that girl,” Star said quietly.
“Of course,” I said. “Actually, we were only here a few days at Christmas and never made it downtown. We spent a lot of time with her mother because her mother was crazy, what we’d call bipolar today but what was the much simpler crazy back then.”
“It was difficult?” Star said. “The visit?”
“It had its moments,” I said. “Good moments. At least one.”
“Probably sex,” Star said.
“My girlfriend took me out on an empty country road and gave me a blow job – the first one of those for either of us.”
“Then we need to do it,” Star said.
“We’ve done it,” I said. “We seem to enjoy it.”
“Yes, we do,” she said, “but that’s not what I meant. We have time, Gary, lots of time. Do you think you can find her mother’s neighborhood, her house? Is she still alive?”
“The house? Yes,” I said. “The girlfriend? Mary – that was her name. I don’t know if she’s still alive. Nor have I ever tried to find out.”
“You should,” Star said. “All those things we leave behind, they’re us and we shouldn’t lose them.”
“Our ending was painful,” I said. “She said she was going to kill herself.”
“She probably didn’t,” said Star.
One boulevard, one street, that’s all I needed and I found those easily. A big house, as I remembered, and it was still that – two story with a windowed attic we’d gone up into one afternoon to fool around. Passion, so popular today, we had that, along with a crazy mother for her and a family I couldn’t get far enough away from for me.
Desperately had we already plundered each other’s bodies in the preceding months we’d known each other, given in to the dictates of hormones and the images pulled from countless books and movies: fucking and kissing, only that – the movies back then suggested that was enough; hence, the novelty of the blowjob.
Something else, though, pushed us, a feel for love, maybe, always right there on the edge, a feeling that we could do that, build it, have it last for decade after decade, something grand in the general world of family or devotion that we’d never have to hide from or apologize for, where I wouldn’t have to give her an engagement ring the night before we left for Kansas, and she wouldn’t have to tell me how necessary it was that she keep it hidden.
“Every minute of her life,” she told me, “my mother views as a loss. If we tell her I’m engaged, she’ll start imagining my obituary.”
Still, we’d have children, we decided, and careers and plenty of money. We’d be solid and dependable. People would like us and enjoy the things we did and the things we had to say. We’d be popular and invited to barbecues and holiday parties. My advice would be sought on financial matters and household repairs. She’d be singled out as wise in matters of the family and children. To her would belong the wisdom of tamping down a nasty childhood fever or bringing in a misbehaving spouse from the cold. We saw ourselves as perfection, an intolerable image, of course. Eventually, there was no way we could be the person each of us saw in the other.
That one afternoon, though, there would be no fooling around in the attic. Her mother was only minutes behind our silent trek up there so we spent a cold afternoon looking at three generations of family photos, all arranged by decade, with each decade delivering at least one bloodling who’d gone stark raving nuts. I became intrigued by that legacy of madness, and began looking into Mary’s eyes for signs of a quiet disintegration.
“We shouldn’t stay too long,” I said to Star. “Someone’s bound to be awake who’ll call the police over a car prowling around.”
“Nostalgia never takes long,” Star said. “I think it’s because we never really know what to do with it.”
“We need to find a place called Yaggy,” I said, starting the car. “Reality needs to give it up to our mystery.”
“Just don’t forget,” Star said.
“I blew you once, too,” she said, “on a country road.”
Easy enough to leave the past behind, but I’d enjoyed the few minutes I’d spent there. After we broke up I lost track of Mary. I, too, was convinced that she “probably” hadn’t killed herself. I even wondered if she might have moved back here, might have grown old with her mother, might even have been staring out of a darkened window and wondering about that car down there, that one with the father juggling too much history. Might she have been thinking, too, that if Celine were our daughter she’d be coming home to cameras and a school band, a painted, a temporary princess not someone to be dropped onto a dirt runway in the middle of the night.
We found the airstrip. A small painted sign read Jones Field, and sat crookedly next to a shack with a windsock on top of it. To the left of the shack sat some bleachers, maybe ten feet long with six levels of seats on it. I assumed they were for the occasional event at the field, fun times, something cool. Drag racing is always popular at small airports.
We went over to the bleachers and sat then.
“It’s almost three o’clock, Gary,” Star said.
“I’m sure these are prompt people,” I said. “Lie down and put your head on my lap if you’d like to snooze for a bit.”
“Too cold for that,” she said, “and too many thoughts. You have no guarantee that any of this is going to happen, do you?”
“That a plane is really going to come in and that my daughter will be plucked from peril as easily as she was plunged into it? That a nightmare of seeing her on the internet confessing foul deeds before being beheaded or stoned to death will prove to be just that – a nightmare? I respect her need for adventure, Star, for that shaky walk over the abyss that will make all those later walks to the water cooler or the boardroom seem worthwhile. But we forget sometimes that what makes an adventure truly that are the terrors, the deadly possibilities that lurk beneath it. She got into that and now it’s time for her to get out of it. But, no, I have no guarantees beyond the sheer senselessness of the senator’s office getting all of this set up if it weren’t going to happen.”
“Jesus, Gary,” Star said, “I’d vote for you if only you’d run for something.”
“If this all works out,” I said, “I’ll be giving no more speeches – only advice to a young woman searching out new pathways for her life.”
“You know your ‘young woman’ might be something considerably other than that now, don’t you?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “What she’ll really be is home – everything else can be worked on, and I’m not naïve about that, Star. Whether it’s a sick body or a sick mind or both …”
“Over there,” Star said suddenly, “way out there. Are those the lights of a plane?”
We also noticed just then a sudden, if faint, glow rising up from the runway.
“Must be lights,” I said, “that can be activated from a plane.”
Beyond that slight aura, however, everything remained dark.
“I can hear it,” Star said. “What time is it, Gary?”
“Three o’clock,” I said.
The dirt airstrip I finally noticed wasn’t exactly that – the landing lights tipping me off – but it was not elegant. Rough asphalt, crumbly on the edges, not much wider than the average road.
While I might, too, have had images of “military transport” coinciding with something that could move the entirety of a small town, the plane that came in was hardly of the C-130 genre: just a plane, twin engine, painted a dark color, no markings that I could see though everything was still quite dark even with the glow of the runway lights. It sped past Star and me with a loud asphalt crunch as the wheels touched down. Then it continued on to what must have been the far end of the runway, several thousand feet I assumed.
We waited for it to turn around, which it did. We waited for it to taxi back to the shacky “terminal,” which it did not. For a good ten minutes it sat there, visible to us only by the quiet drone of the engines. Then the wing lights went on, the engines powered back up, and by the time it passed us again it was twenty or thirty feet in the air.
“What the hell?” I said.
“The car, Gary,” Star said. “Let’s go.”
“They just …?” I began.
“We don’t know,” Star said. “But she’s down there. I’m sure she is.”
We drove, the runway once again dark with the landing lights off, asphalt on dirt – smooth enough. Not even a mile, but it took forever, our eyes scanning back and forth looking for bundles or packages or a young woman standing and trying to signal her father that she was home, that she was safe and well with lots of stories to tell.
My headlights finally picked out … yellow, something yellow: a shape, a presence. A box?
“Shit,” I said.
A wooden box, the shape familiar. Five feet in length or so, a couple feet wide. This is the best my government could do?
We reached it and my hands were shaking. I could almost feel Star trying to think of something to say, those first words of condolence like the headline on a newspaper.
“So it’s all bad,” I said, maybe to Star or just myself, my words barely audible.
“We don’t …” Star began.
“We don’t know something, Star?” I said. “What do you suppose it is we don’t know?”
Anger, I thought, your child turns out to be painfully temporary and so you turn to anger – it focuses, it soothes, it gives you a reason to go on living.
Nailed shut, as might be expected, anything, at this point, fully expected, though that nailed lid, oddly enough, seemed short, a gap there – hardly hygienic. A handhold, dirty fingers giving a heft and fouling what I remembered as surely the finest forehead ever seen?
What manner of construction was this? What manner of scene?
Could be imagined, could be. Easily did I feel myself to be in imaginary territory. Sounds, smells, inadvertent tragedies, all of it the rich stuff of education and despair. Even Star, who I never knew when I was a young man but who blew me out in the country anyway, maybe she was only a neuronal beauty, a synaptic ghost trying to ease me into grief.
From within that foul, that ugly box: “Daddy?”
I knew that voice. Of course I did.
© G.K. Wuori 2010
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