Uncle Richard rubbed his hands together and looked benignly down on us. “Good. You’re here. Now, what’ll it be? Gin with your tonic, or vodka?”
I turned toward Bonnie.
“Vodka,” she said eagerly.
“And for you?” asked Uncle Richard with a kindly smile.
He started toward the kitchen then turned back. “Lime?”
We both nodded, good little guests side by side on the white couch.
Uncle Richard’s house was very white. It was spacious, attractive, well furnished, filled with light, imaginatively landscaped, and centrally air-conditioned. The cathedral ceiling soared so loftily above our heads I felt like a French peasant at Chartres. I’d expected something more cramped. For their first three golden years Uncle Richard and Aunt Edith had occupied a one-bedroom condo in Delray Beach. Then they’d decided that, what with their investments gushing cash, they could spring for a bigger place. So they bought into a new development on an ex-orange grove. Here, my uncle had explained, they could comfortably put up guests, their two kids, the grandchildren, old neighbors who’d yet to emigrate. Our own invitation was a standing one, though this was the first we’d made use of it. Bonnie and I were both working hard; we were on the make. She was busy becoming indispensable at her pharmaceutical company while I was trying to do the same at the university where I was second-in-command of the Office of the Registrar.
My uncle’s open invitation was sincere. He and I had hit it off when I was a baby, precursor of a new generation. We’d always been fond of each other and talked, with ready sympathy and even candor. As my somewhat stuffy father’s easy-going younger brother Richard had a measure of authority for me but without the electric charge. As his nephew I afforded some of the advantages of a son without any responsibility or risk of resentment. As a boy, what I’d found irresistible about my Uncle Richard was the way he not only licensed my irreverence but shared and encouraged it.
When my aunt and uncle were getting ready to move he’d said, “Come down any time” with so much sincerity I almost believed he needed my company. Then, only a month before they were to move into their dream house, Aunt Edith died of a stroke. “Just fell down in the parking lot of the Winn-Dixie,” Richard told me over the phone. He repeated this sentence when I flew down for the funeral and every time I’d phoned him since, which was once a week. Either he couldn’t get over the suddenness of it or he was affronted that the solemnity of death should be smirched by the banality of a supermarket.
By way of solace I quoted Cicero’s prayer to him: “The lightning before the doctors.”
“Well, there is that,” he allowed.
Richard had moved into the house anyway and ever since had found himself at one end of a conveyor belt trundling friends and relatives to his door. In October, surveying his social calendar with me, he’d confided that a spell of solitude wouldn’t be unwelcome. “I feel I’m neglecting our—excuse me—my new friends.”
I didn’t find the prospect of begging for a time-slot entirely agreeable.
What sent me and Bonnie south was the shock of our circle’s first divorce, or the recognition forced on us by it. Fred and Mariel had seemed happier than we were and better matched. They were always smooching in public, touching. Their separation provoked Bonnie and me to begin probing the fissures in our own relations, and it seemed to us they were wide and getting wider. This scared us, as if we might divorce too, even without actually willing it. It was a rough autumn, furtively inspecting each other for marks of ennui or exasperation, signs of disgust or infidelity. We’d only been married a few years and should have been thinking of children; now we were afraid to have any. We didn’t ignore the tension. On the contrary, it became our chief topic of conversation. Bonnie talked about our problems openly and exhaustively while I did it gingerly. We were like two untrained soldiers discussing how to disarm an unfamiliar bomb, only Bonnie thought we could fix it and I wasn’t so sure.
“For God’s sake, let’s go away,” Bonnie urged one frigid January night as we lay in bed after a round of picking at half-formed scabs.
“Just for a few days. Away from here.”
I was dubious. “Where?”
“Some place warm. Some place with sun and a beach. We could go see your Uncle Richard. He’s so sweet and I had to miss the funeral and he did say any time.”
This was an unexpected suggestion. Perhaps Bonnie reckoned the sight of a lonesome widower would impress on me the advantages of even a compromised conjugal life.
“Yes, we’re married people,” I’d been saying, “that’s our identity now. We crossed that particular line. I’m what people call a married man and you’re a married woman. But that can change overnight.”
“Marriage isn’t an abstract condition, or it shouldn’t be,” she’d replied thoughtfully. “You aren’t married the way you’re, say, Buddhist or brown-eyed. It isn’t existential. You get married to someone. We’re married to each other.”
I wanted to battle against being comforted but I also yearned to lose the argument, if that’s what it was. “And what if you decide you don’t want to be married to me any more, even if you like being married? Or turn it around. What if you still love me but just can’t bear being married to me.”
“But I do want to. You’re the one who isn’t sure, isn’t fully committed.”
“That’s not true.”
She was exasperated. “Well, then why are we—?”
“I don’t know. Jesus, I really don’t.”
In those days I permitted all sort of possibilities to pass through me like cosmic rays, everything from adultery to having triplets to outright desertion. My daydreams were passive and so I felt no responsibility for them. Bonnie, I assumed, was doing the same. We weren’t accountable to each other for this private subversion but there it was. I began to feel our marriage becoming a fragile bridge that would collapse if it had to bear even one more car.
It was February, always the longest month of the year. With sick days and a little scrambling we could both swing the trip. Uncle Richard was perfect. When I phoned he didn’t even wait for me ask. Renewing his invitation was almost the first thing he said. We set a date; we made plane reservations; we cleared our calendars. Bonnie bought some new clothes and I wondered if this weren’t just a useless distraction from whatever ailed us. Were we trying to run from the beast or choosing the ground on which to confront it?
“Umm,” sighed Bonnie as she came in late from work in overcoat and scarf and runny nose. “Next week the beach,” she said bravely.
All my life I’ve pretended to like the beach in the same way I’ve faked joy on New Year’s Eve. It isn’t simply hypocrisy or conformity but a wish to participate in the joys of others, or at least not to be a wet blanket. I grit my teeth and smile but the fact is beaches bore me. I hate the heat and the sun, the smells and most of the sights. The ocean frightens me. Since I was a child told how much fun I was having I’ve kept this aversion to myself, along with my indifference to ice cream, so as not to appear—what?—un-American? an ascetic? Not to enjoy what was universally liked wasn’t a distinction; it was shameful. After all, vacations, holidays, and fatty desserts are all pure pleasures, conceived to be delightful in their very emptiness, and to reject them, not out of puritanical rigor but simply because for me they aren’t pleasures, seemed perverse and anti-social. I was glad enough to get away, looking forward to seeing my uncle, but I dreaded the sand and the waves.
So I said, “Yippee!” as if I meant it.
I convinced Uncle Richard to put off his barbecue for one night and let us take him out to dinner. He chose a seafood place called Mother’s. It was pleasant and familiar, with its captain’s chairs, fishing paraphernalia on the walls, and walnut veneer wainscoting. Anyone from almost anywhere would have felt comfortable there. I was impressed by the number of people Richard greeted and who greeted him; not all of them were widows, either. We were introduced around and endured the customary snowbird jokes. Most wanted to know precisely how low the temperatures had been back home, a request for a reassurance, I supposed, or a variety of schadenfreude. Bonnie and I answered docilely. “Old folks are obsessed with other people’s weather and their own digestion,” she cracked to me later.
Once we were seated, Richard and I traded family stories—who was up to what, the latest medical data, who’d moved where, a bit of gossip concerning a cousin whose wife had deserted him, the question being whether it was for a man or a woman. Bonnie bore all this patiently and my uncle rewarded her by devoting the entire remainder of the meal to interviewing her. He insisted on hearing everything about her job, her prospects, her colleagues, her sister the urban anthropologist, her parents—who, I discovered, were also weighing a permanent move south. This was news to me.
After the table had been cleared and we were waiting for dessert, Richard beamed at us as he asked, “So, I don’t know if it’s been like this with either of you, but I remember feeling I was playing at being a grown-up for a year or two after I got hitched to Edith. You kids used to it by now?”
Bonnie replied without answering the question. “You miss her,” she said. I was puzzled because my wife seldom states the obvious but Richard understood. It was the first time he’d mentioned my aunt. What Bonnie conveyed wasn’t a query but sympathy, and he laid his hand on hers. I thought he didn’t particularly like Bonnie and put his hand on hers just because he was fond of me. It must be nice for Richard to have a young woman around, I mused, looking over Mother’s, which really ought to have been called Grandmother’s.
A man lumbered over to our table and, with incongruous tenderness, patted my uncle on the back. The fellow was huge, about six-six, and built on rectangular lines. Graying red hair curled over his ears; his pate was shiny.
My uncle turned. “Ah, Charlie MacLaughlin in the flesh,” he laughed affectionately.
“About time you sallied forth from your castle, Lionheart,” growled MacLaughlin. “I’d begun to wonder if you were being held for ransom again.”
This Richard the First business was evidently a private joke between them. I liked the way MacLaughlin teased my uncle. It made me like him too—that and the way Richard laughed when he saw him. This must be one of the new, neglected friends, I assumed. There was no Mrs. MacLaughlin in sight.
My uncle introduced us and I was pleased that MacLaughlin, enveloping my hand in his massive grip, resisted inquiring about the temperature up north. What he said was, “Call me Mack, like the truck.” Bonnie giggled.
“Mack,” said my uncle proudly, “may not know everything but he’s done almost everything. He’s my widower guru.”
Mack’s great red face turned redder. “Listen to him,” he said.
“He’s been a Marine judo instructor, worked on oil tankers, also an electrician, salmon fisherman, a claims adjuster, a trained—what d’you call guys who drill oil wells?”
“Roughneck?” Bonnie suggested.
“That’s it. Even a private detective. Right, Mack?” My uncle bragged.
Mack shrugged and looked from me to Bonnie. “Couldn’t hold a job. But look, Your Majesty, I’ve got to go. Just wanted to say hi.”
“No, no,” cried Richard. “Sit. Join us.”
“Sorry, gotta be off. Really. Pinochle.”
“Then how about joining us for dinner tomorrow night? I’m barbecuing,” Richard added enticingly.
Mack hesitated, doubtful.
“Drinks at five.”
“I wouldn’t want—”
“Isn’t the king’s wish the same as a command?” asked Bonnie archly. We both liked this Frigidaire of a man.
The guest room was large, again with high white walls. On these Uncle Richard had hung three paintings, all of picturesque subjects by local artists of some talent. Shells were spread on top of the bureau, navy blue sheets on the bed; by the window stood a matched pair of wicker armchairs. They were painted white and had tufted blue cushions on the seats. Everywhere white and blue, even in the pictures with their white clouds, waves, and birds, their blue seas and skies. This two-tone combo was crisp and bracing, evoking summertime and good hygiene. Bonnie was exhilarated. She said the room put her in mind of the nicer catalogues, that she liked my uncle more than ever, that Mack seemed a perfect chum for him. Then she turned on the television to catch the eleven o’clock news. She dislikes being out of touch and had gone all day without an update. The lead story was something about an alligator and a quick-thinking caddie on a golf course. Bonnie began to unpack the bags. I decided to shower. We were both too weary to pick anything apart, even our marriage.
Science demystifies by getting us to concentrate so much on the how that we blithely, even scornfully ignore the why. Very likely, the scientists of my acquaintance suggest, there isn’t any why, at least none we can verify, or there are too many whys and so any given one is unreliable. You want metaphysics, go down the hall and turn left. This works pretty well for astronomy and physics, which may concern us but aren’t personal matters. With dreams it’s different. Brain science hasn’t made dreams less mysterious, any less urgent as regards the why. Debunk Freud all you like—and his biblical predecessors Joseph and Daniel—we still need and heed them. In fact, the mechanics of dreaming, which part of the neocortex is or isn’t doing what, actually suggests something meaningful may be going on. At least you can’t disprove it. And so we all try to catch up with our dreams, even when they appear to be about the past rather than the future. These symbolic narratives demand an exegesis.
I had a perplexing dream that first night in King Richard’s castle, between the navy blue sheets and the white ceiling as Bonnie breathed softly and the air-conditioning hummed. It was one of those vivid ones you’re still convinced of for a few unsettling seconds after you wake, a time when reality flutters.
In the dream, not every detail of which I can recall, I am arrested. I’m living in an apartment where everything’s white. Someone lives there with me. I’m pretty sure it’s a woman but can’t say if it’s Bonnie. This roommate is, so to speak, an offstage presence in the dream which begins something like the first page of Kafka’s Trial, an unconscious plagiarism or perhaps an homage from the unconscious itself. It’s a terribly bright morning. Sunlight shines through the window over the kitchen sink and reflects blindingly off the white furniture and walls. I’m just out of bed, sitting at the kitchen table waiting for the coffee to brew. Three men clamber up the stairs and show themselves at the door, which is wide open. The first over the threshold is bald and wears a bad suit; he is the detective in charge. Behind him loom two uniformed officers. The inspector, while perfectly willing to tell me that they are there to take me into custody, is reluctant to reveal the charge when I ask. In fact, he seems to find my question disconcerting, as if I had said something in bad taste or were not playing by the rules. He hints, however, that when the charges are disclosed, as they will be at my arraignment, they will have to do with actions tending to the undermining of good public order. I remark that the charge is rather vague. Not without embarrassment, the detective lets me know I’ve been under surveillance for some time and that it’s a question of important social conventions. I seem to know what he’s referring to; in fact, I admit to myself that the charge is legitimate. Nonetheless, I protest my innocence, objecting that what he’s hinting at isn’t a violation of any existing law. I know what I am saying is only pro forma, and he looks as if he’s heard it all before.
In my opinion, the point of the dream isn’t that I’m arrested in it but that I feel guilty. It isn’t like The Trial where Joseph K. requires the whole book to accustom himself to his guilt and submit to the awful court which is both divine and demonic. What counts is the feeling behind a dream, and what I felt was culpable for something I hadn’t yet done, had perhaps hardly even thought of doing but nevertheless might do. The authorities had somehow ferreted this out, knew my plans even better than I did, and moved in to forestall the crime, which had something to do with that offstage presence with whom I shared the cramped, glaring apartment. And so, in the dream, I began to fret about my prospective life as a prisoner, as a convict. How might I defend myself, how would I be able to sleep, when would I smoke my pipe? From these self-centered anxieties, I forced myself up into consciousness.
No interpretation is other than provisional; the interpretation of a dream is apt to be colored by the dreamer’s immediate concerns. Was that bald detective a version of Mack, suggested by the fact that he’d once been a private investigator? Was the woman both at the heart of the dream and absent from it Bonnie? Was the pre-empted crime, the action tending to the undermining of good public order, that I was about to do something to our marriage? I admit this is how I understood the dream, more as a warning than a prophecy. I decided the police represented my conscience or perhaps that part of it that had been successfully conditioned by the forces of good public order. As regards myself, the dream was ambiguous because I was at once in rebellion against the social order and disposed to submit to its verdict. But what of the white glare of that small apartment? Was it merely a detail borrowed from my uncle’s décor or significant in some way—purity, blankness, sterility?
All this I thought through in a matter of seconds, those that followed the reassuring recognition that it was, as we say, “only a dream.” After that, I put it away, just as Bonnie had our clothes.
She was already up. The bed beside me wasn’t even warm.
When I got down she and Uncle Richard were eating cereal and laying their plans. The beach, of course, topped the list. We’d all go together, then Richard would leave us to run some errands. He had to pick up another steak for Mack. We could bake as long as long as the sunblock lasted, then grab some lunch, take a drive, visit the lighthouse, the wildlife preserve, the shell museum, the shops and galleries. Up to us. Bonnie liked the idea of a leisurely lunch by the ocean and some shopping. Uncle Richard suggested a restaurant and promised me a not altogether provincial bookstore.
And so the day went by without a word about our problems. We behaved like a couple in a commercial, frolicking in the waves, delighting over things in stores, smiling, smiling. We hadn’t forgotten; we weren’t even denying, only waiting—I for Bonnie to speak first and she for me. It was an Alphonse and Gaston routine, a jockeying for moral advantage.
Uncle Richard’s banquet was not only delicious but interesting. Having spent the day outdoors, Bonnie and I felt we’d earned the right to eat a lot. Mack also brought a good appetite along with some good beer. As for Uncle Richard, the more we all consumed the jollier he became.
“I like cooking for other people,” he remarked to me as we stood by his gas grill. “It’s a good metaphor.”
“Oh, for lots of things, I guess. Teaching, for one. You used to teach. Doesn’t a teacher get pleasure from watching the young digest what he’s cooked up for them?”
“Sure,” I said uncertainly.
“Or being in love.”
“Selfishness as a form of altruism, or vice versa?”
“Sorry, I’m putting it badly. I mean when you get your pleasure from somebody else’s, from being the cause of it.” He paused slightly. “You and Bonnie?”
“Sure, sure. That is, I think I know what you mean.” This came out with more ambivalence than I’d intended.
Richard flipped the steaks and laid down circular slabs of Vidalia onion. “When Edith was alive I concentrated it all on her, you know. That sort of pleasure.”
“Um, I’m sorry—”
“It was too narrow, I see that now, but it was just lovely. Can you believe I still remember the first time she called me ‘you big lug’? More than fifty years ago, but that was the moment when I knew I had her. Sometimes nothing’s more intimate than an insult.”
I tried to recall if Bonnie had ever spoken to me in just that way. Then I asked myself if such endearing insults might really be a kind of resistance, a checking rather than deepening of intimacy. Bonnie and I had learned how to jab, but I didn’t think our sparring constituted a good intimacy, the kind you’d enjoy remembering half a century later.
Bonnie and Mack were sitting on the white couch drinking and eating cheeses. From the deck I could only see the backs of their heads, Mack’s dome was much higher than Bonnie’s brown tresses. He was doing most of the talking. Bonnie seemed to be paying close attention.
What made the evening so interesting, I later thought, was how the permutations worked out. Over the four hours we went through the six possible pairings, as if it were a square dance. Bonnie and I exchanged looks and nervous smiles but few words. Uncle Richard and I spoke over the grill and during the cleaning up. Bonnie spent a lot of time drawing Mack out, knowing how readily even a taciturn man will speak to an attentive young woman. It was like Othello telling war stories to Desdemona, I thought. Mack and I hardly exchanged a word but at the end of the evening the couples formed anew. Bonnie said she wanted another beach day but that I probably wouldn’t. While this was true, it sounded as though she wanted to be rid of me. Richard and Mack looked meaningfully at each other—a change of plans? a sense of something not quite right—and it was quickly arranged that in the morning Mack would take me out in his Boston whaler while Richard and Bonnie went to the beach, then to the wildlife preserve to check out birds and alligators.
I have a Ph.D., which is an asset when it comes to pushing the product at my place of employment but otherwise pretty useless. Seeing the dimness of my prospects, I jumped from teaching to administration before I could be denied tenure and sent to swell the proletariat of the spirit. I understand perfectly that, professionally speaking, I’m a parasite, that the real work of the institution is carried out by its faculty and students, the cooking and eating. Nevertheless, like most of my colleagues, I find it convenient to forget this, to behave as if it’s we, not they, who are the university. We talk of the faculty and students the way corporate executives do of workers and customers. It’s because of this rather than my doctorate that I’m never intimidated by even the most distinguished of professors, even the kind who are so eminent that their field of vision is seldom marred by an undergraduate. I call full professors by their first names. My office is larger than most of theirs.
Mack, on the other hand, intimidated me. Big, competent, many years my senior, he made me feel like a tyro. On the boat with him I felt out of my element twice over. However, this wasn’t bad. I felt happy and irresponsible. I was as inquisitive as a boy about the whaler, the fishing gear, the bait, what was swimming below us. I wanted to hear all the local names. I was just as curious about Mack himself, a man with a ton of what the English used to call bottom. If he was laconic I felt this was because he knew too much to be loquacious. In my world words are too often the point—a world of words about other words—but with Mack every statement had to have a solid referent. And this is why his thoughtfulness made a profound impression on me. Here was a man of action turned to reflection, like Conrad’s Marlow in retirement.
He began by filling me in on Uncle Richard. “He nearly went under at first.”
“Under?” I thought of the water.
“The way a drowning man’ll give up and sink, the way a climber goes to sleep before he freezes on a mountain.”
I could only come up with a cliché. “My aunt’s death hit him really hard.”
“You know he stopped eating?”
“Hardly anything. Sat there in that new mansion which she’d picked out everything for like it wasn’t so much her mausoleum as his.”
“You mean he lost the will to live?”
Mack shook his head. “It doesn’t feel like that. What it feels like is that life has lost its hold on you.”
Very carefully I asked, “You… too?”
Mack fiddled with his rod before deigning to give me a nod. I thought of Shakespeare’s line about having to endure, about “ripeness is all.” Mack was certainly ripe. Tempered but still accessible, you could see his vitality in his enormous hands. To my uncle he must seem not just a good but a towering example. If Mack the ex-judo instructor, the ex-roughneck, told you to go on living, you’d do it.
We fished desultorily and explored the inland waterway without saying much. If Bonnie were here, I thought, she’d get him chattering, but I lacked the knack. So it was masculine muteness for about an hour. Mack seemed to concentrate on whatever he was doing—steering the boat, playing out his line, baiting hooks—not on me. This, it turned out, was not entirely the case. At least I think so.
He pulled in at a public dock. “Thought we could use to stretch our legs a bit, grab some shade.” He pointed up the embankment. “There’s a place has an awning and cold beer up there. Here, take the painter.”
So I found myself under a striped awning—faded blue, bleached white—with Mack telling me a story. Like Marlow, he just launched into it.
He leaned on an elbow, chin in his hand. “You know, sitting here puts me in mind of something” was his once-upon-a-time. “You probably know P.I.s do basically three jobs: there’s your adultery, insurance fraud, and your missing persons. I specialized in fraud because it paid the best and I had an in with the company from when I was an adjuster. But I took on other jobs too. One day I get a call from this woman, a real piece of work she was too. Says she wants me to find her husband and offers me ten grand to do it. Of course I had a hundred questions and said we’d have to meet. ‘Okay,’ she says, ‘I’ll be there in three minutes. I’m calling from a pay phone around the corner.’ Her little joke. So she waltzes into my hole-in-the-wall and she looks like a complete flake, a hippie—the long hair and skirt, funny perfume, loads of beads and no make-up. It takes me an hour to ask all my questions.”
“Like how long he’d been gone. Like did he leave a note. Like did she file a police report. Like did he take any money. That was interesting, by the way. ‘Oh no,’ she says, ‘he left me all of it, in fact a lot more than I thought he had. He filled up my bank account.’ I asked where he worked and had she heard anything from his employer. I wanted to know how well they’d been getting along. I asked if she suspected another woman or foul play. She was very patient. In fact, she came prepared, gave me a bunch of written information, all nicely typed out.”
“Had she contacted the police?”
“No. When I asked why not she said she didn’t want to, which made me suspicious.”
“Something illegal? All that money?”
“Crossed my mind. But she told me no. The money was plenty but he was a rich man. Investments he’d liquidated for her, she said. She didn’t go to the police because she felt whatever was going on was a private matter. I asked if she wanted him back. That was the only question she wasn’t ready for.”
“What did she say?”
“Her answer was the ten grand.”
“Hm,” I said, just to hold up my end.
“Three weeks later I walked into a bar in Youngstown, Ohio. I took a stool, bought a beer, and began talking to the guy next to me. I went through the usual topics, weather, sports, politics. He was polite but not what you’d call outgoing. I ordered us another round and told him he looked a little depressed. ‘Look around,’ he says, amused. I asked him if he was out of work, like half of Youngstown. He says no, he’s got a job. ‘Really?’ I say. ‘What do you do?’ ‘Sales,’ he says. I ask him what he sells and he says hardware. So I tell him I’m in sales too, farm equipment, and on the road all the time. ‘Puts a strain on the marriage,’ I say and ask if he’s married. ‘Used to be,’ he says. ‘Oh,’ I say, ‘divorced?’ He doesn’t answer.
“This was the missing husband?”
Mack smiled indulgently. “By then I knew where he lived and where he worked. I knew the name he was using. Hell, I even knew what bar he went to and which stool he put his ass on. I knew everything except one thing which is why I wanted to find him before writing up my report for his wife.”
“And that was?”
“Why he took off.”
“Was it so puzzling?”
“He left all his money behind. There was no other woman and he wasn’t in trouble at work. In fact, he handed in his resignation the day he left. According to the wife they’d been nothing but happy together. ‘Happy enough,’ was how she put it.” Mack looked at me the way he might have at a stranger in the bar. “It didn’t add up,” he explained.
Could Mack know I’d thought about doing the same thing, taking a bus to some town in the middle of the country, choosing a new name, finding some lousy job and a room and leaving Bonnie with everything except an explanation because I couldn’t pin one down myself? It was only a daydream, just whimsy. Is it possible—possible that on a sudden impulse a person would act on such a thing, turn frivolity into fact?
“Did she want him back?” I asked.
Mack leaned back in his chair and some of the tension between us relaxed. “I don’t think so. She said she just wanted to know, that’s all.”
We were quiet for a moment, listening to me not asking why the guy had taken off.
“Did you tell him—I mean did you tell him who you were?”
“He figured that out for himself.”
Article 367(2) of the Criminal Code of Belarus has been used to make journalists disappear. In Chile and Argentina the juntas caused thousands to vanish, turning disappear into a transitive verb, disappeared into a noun. Teenagers do it routinely, so do the victims of serial killers; children are plucked from suburban streets, all the men from ill-starred villages.
The unfinished novel Kafka called Der Verschollene was published under the title Amerika. He had nothing to go on but a few postcards from his uncle in Chicago and the intuition that America offers an exhilarating yet terrifying continental liberty into which anybody might disappear, going under or emerging metamorphosed, no longer the shabby immigrant with an unpronounceable name but a big shot with just the soupçon of an accent.
Disappearing is almost a national tradition. Go west, young man; start fresh; history is bunk, especially yours. Every contract comes with an escape clause.
When he was nine years old Cary Grant—still English, still Archie—came home from school to find his mother had disappeared. One day James Franklin walked into his print shop and found that his seventeen-year-old brother had vanished, breaking his indenture. There’s scarcely a trace of Ben in Boston, but he practically invented the civic life of Philadelphia. In the end, in the ultimate West, Sweet Betsy from Pike ditched her husband Ike.
The list is staggering: runaways in bus stations, name-changers in hardware stores, bigamists, grifters, the stage-struck, the bankrupt, the lighters-out. Good public order requires that we stay put and see things through, not float away on the hot air of daydreams, not abscond, but succumb to the gravity of our histories. To disappear is enticing but it’s dangerous. To give up your place, to break the entangling, sustaining webs of natural and acquired relations is like diving into the sea; the ocean can close over you in a second. To disappear can be noble, courageous, optimistic. But isn’t it also desperate to think that a limitless, unknown nothing will be better than a cramped, familiar something?
We were on the plane.
“We never actually talked.”
“Your parents are moving?”
“I know that too.”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“Everything felt, I don’t know, so unsettled. I just didn’t think of it.”
“You should have.”
“People move. People move away, apart.”
“Or disappear. That’s true.”
“They’re only moving to Florida. Like your Uncle Richard.”
“Well, I’m here.”
“On this plane, next to you.”
“If there’s a here here, then I’m here too.”
“Next to me.”
“Next to you.”
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, winner of the First Prize for Fiction, Indie Book Awards, 2008. A new collection of stories, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, is forthcoming. E-mail: wexelblatt[at]verizon.net