by Bill Schillaci
Blake and Jonah
The hand-painted sign in the window of the diner was flipped to Open, but the interior looked to be in the overnight security mode, semi-lit by half the ceiling’s long fluorescent bulbs, which in union with the yellow walls birthed the illusion of a bile-colored haze floating above the booths and counter. The illusion was exclusively Jonah’s, who told Blake he was still experiencing the plus side of the product after overnight testing in the Days Inn. Blake took a small taste and was satisfied, but Jonah wanted to be sure the quality was uniform, digging around for samples in both plastic shopping bags. Blake wanted to ask Jonah if his plan was to get a refund if he was disappointed. But they had gotten this far and Jonah hadn’t fucked it up, so Blake let him do what he wanted.
The day before, the French Canadians, who Blake believed were actually Kyrgyzs, had texted him the long and lat, a time, a dollar amount, and two words—“Be there.” They drove six straight hours in Jonah’s Escalade with Jonah’s cash and found the location, an empty beach enclosed by spruce trees on the U.S. side of Lake Memphremagog, just minutes before the meet time. Two hours later, after speculation led to disagreements that fueled remorse and despair and then nearly mutual agreement that they were being set up, they spotted the single light on the blue black water. Two shadows paddled up to the shore in a silver canoe.
“Wait here,” said Blake. “Keep the engine running.”
He took the backpack and walked across the sand, stopping half the distance to the canoe. The strong beam was directed straight into his face so that he was fully blinded. There he stood, exposed, wondering if he was about to be shot to death. After a few elongated minutes, the light separated from the canoe and approached.
“Put it down,” Blake was told in a voice that had no accent at all. Blake dropped the pack and the figure in front of him backed away. The first and now a second light crisscrossedin the canoe and then both lights went dark. The canoe backed away from the shore and soundlessly floated away.
Blake returned to the Escalade with the product stuffed into the bags that were wet after being tossed to the water’s edge. Jonah pawed through the contents. He had brought a scale and wanted to weigh it right there. Blake just sat in the Escalade and closed his eyes. Jonah kept talking and Blake was actually trying to follow what he was saying. But the sensation of not being dead had for the moment displaced whatever role Jonah was playing in his life as well as anything Jonah had to say. Blake wanted to drive right back to the city, but Jonah said they shouldn’t act guilty, and a lone vehicle on country roads would actually attract more attention in the middle of the night. Blake felt there was a fundamental flaw in this thinking, but he couldn’t put his finger on precisely what it was and so said nothing. Sometime later, he collapsed fully clothed into a nervous sleep under a scratchy bedspread in the Days Inn.
Jonah roused him before dawn and said they should go to breakfast, another variation of Jonah’s peculiar notion of hiding in plain sight. They stored the bags under the spare tire and drove into the town. Regaining some of clarity of mind, Blake said he wouldn’t go into the diner if they didn’t have an unimpeded view of the Escalade. This proved to be a non-issue since there wasn’t a single vehicle parked as far as they could see along the stretch of road called Main Street. An overhead bell tinkled when Jonah pushed the door and from somewhere in the rear a gravelly female voice called out have a seat, be right with you.
The remaining ceiling lights blinked on. Across the table Jonah’s normally pale eyes seemed to be drowning in blood.
“You look fried,” whispered Blake.
“That’s because I am.”
“We should have stayed in the room.”
A young woman with an incongruous head of luxuriant, fully greyed hair pulled straight back into a thick braid strode toward the table with glass carafe of smoking coffee and two stout mugs.
“You guys are in luck,” she said, filling the mugs. “The chef’s on time today.”
“Pretty slow for a Tuesday,” said Blake, merely to distract her from looking at Jonah.
She paused then said, “Ah, you haven’t heard.”
Before Blake could ask heard what? the bell sounded again and a cop walked into the diner. A barely audible note of strangulation escaped Jonah’s throat. Blake lifted two menus from the little gate that also corralled the ketchup, sugar and hot sauce and with a stern expression pushed one across the table. For once, Jonah got it. He bent over the menu as if perusing the breakfast selections. The cop had some stripes on his sleeve that matched his military bearing.
“Edie,” he said, nodding to the waitress. “Mind if I have a word with your patrons?”
“I don’t if they don’t.”
“Morning, fellas. Passing through town?”
“Yes, sir,” said Blake happily. He took a mouthful of coffee, which scalded his tongue. The instinct was to spin out a tale about visiting his cousin in a nearby town. He thought that would work because he actually did have a cousin upstate, but it was only upstate of the city and almost three hundred miles south of where they now sat. Still it was the best he could come up with and had started concocting the story as soon as the cop appeared. But in the next instant, as the cop neared the table, Blake decided that the holes in any story he invented on the spot would be as clear to the cop as a bucket of twenties sitting on the seat beside him.
“We need volunteers,” said the cop. “I was wondering if you two could lend a hand.”
Jonah’s hunched shoulders visibly relaxed as the cop explained the situation and that the search party he had formed was still short a few links even though he hadn’t gotten a single refusal from anyone he had asked to join.
“This must be a small town,” said Blake.
“Now that tells me something about you.”
“What does it tell you?”
“That you’re from the city.”
“Oh, I get it. You don’t think of yourself as a small town.”
The cop smiled sadly. He identified himself as Chief Forbes, gave them directions to the meadow, returned to his cruiser, which he had parked right behind the Escalade within six feet of the stashed product, and drove away. Edie brought the two plates, and Jonah started shoveling in his johnnycakes. A western omelet with hash browns sat untouched before Blake. Blake wanted to ask Jonah why he was doing this. Then he recalled that he had already asked him that, and Jonah had answered because they’d been friends since the third grade and friends help friends. Blake had trouble accepting that as a reason to become a drug dealer and wanted Jonah to come up with another so he could distrust him as he understood he was supposed to distrust everyone, even your partners, in this line of business. But the only other possible reason was the money, and he just couldn’t figure out how Jonah needed it.
“You going to eat that?” said Jonah.
Blake shook his head. Jonah waved at Edie and asked her to pack it up.
“You might want it later,” Jonah said.
She returned to the table with a white paper bag with Blake’s breakfast and two containers of coffee they hadn’t asked for.
“On the house,” she said. “God bless you.”
As if it had been scripted for a Lifetime movie, it started to squall. As first light approached and the town awoke and slowly accepted that the news from the day before had not been a nightmare, clouds thickened into the shape of a clenched boxing glove above and between two minor mountains to the north. Soon after, the searchers gathered near the broad meadow where the child’s floral yellow raincoat had been found, and a flat, gritty rain raced toward them and pelted their faces.
This I observed through the morning bleakness from a third floor window of my boarding house across the road. I hadn’t slept the night before, not after Chief Forbes showed up a second time and assaulted my door with his night stick. He and two of his deputies then invaded every part of the house, waking my boarders and ordering them into the halls while they tossed the rooms.
This time Forbes had a warrant, which was probably easily obtained given the history, both mine and the borders, and his own role in it. When he first stood at the door two decades before, he wasn’t much more than a raw rookie, unsure of himself and quite polite, point man in a long blue and gray line of enforcement and other civil servants who appeared to have the collective goal of harassing me into either an admission of guilt, or, absent that, suicide. They got neither. But my ex’s Oscar-worthy performance in court still won over the jury. Her allegation was that any father, who in the middle of the night walks naked through the bedroom of his three-year old daughter on the way to the half bathroom because the full bathroom is being used by his wife, with an erection can have only one thing on his mind even though my physical manifestation was wholly unerotic and caused completely by a nocturnally overloaded bladder.
Upon hearing the verdict, I wondered if imprisonment would be a reprieve from having my privacy violated and my humanity disparaged on an almost weekly basis over more than two years while the case dragged on and disappointing my interrogators with the same story every time. Incarceration at Chateaugay would not be a reprieve. While I certainly was not the only accused child molester on the premises, I was the freshest, a provocative news item that spread quicker than skunk scent and injected a bit of excitement into the crushing monotony of prison life. My arrival also put immense pressure on my cellmate, a thin young man with an indecipherable East Asian accent, who broke my nose with a single karate chop when I was asleep in the lower bunk on my second night in prison. Having delivered the blow, he calmly climbed back to the top bunk while I stuck balls of toilet paper into my nostrils to stanch the blood flow. His duty fulfilled, neither he nor I ever spoke a word about it. There were other assaults. Once a hand as large as a kid’s baseball mitt fully cupped one side of my head and bounced it off the pole supporting the basketball hoop in the yard. My knees buckled, but I refused to go down. There were also many expulsions of spit into my face and once a flight of excrement, most of which was on target, as I exited the shower. The guards refused to let me back in a second time to wash it off, which more or less characterized their attitude toward me. But the karate chop was the worst of it, not because of the physical trauma, which I admit was intense, but because I had to invent an excuse – inherited Osler-Weber-Rendu syndrome – chronic nose bleeds – a condition I dug up in the prison library and told the prison psychologist about after the laundry staff informed management of the grotesque tracks of blood on my t-shirt and pillow case. Given that I also had two spectacular black eyes, the shrink couldn’t have bought it. But he also knew the fabrication was essential to my survival, and he let it go. I had counseled many inmates and parolees in my day job and learned that ratting out a fellow prisoner was even worse than the crime I hadn’t committed.
Why didn’t I break? Why didn’t I bring to fruition the pornographic daydreams of my tormenters, both inside and outside the pen, by assembling a noose from scraps of fabric and quietly hanging myself in the darkness of my cell? I doubt my cellmate, or any of the night guards, would have intervened, at least not until they were sure I had ceased breathing. Prospects did not look much better with my release since my so-called vocation was in ruins. What saved me – and, yes, I needed saving since the rationality of ending my existence as a pariah was incontestable, even to me – was my business plan. The idea sprung from my house, one of the oldest and largest in the town, in my family since Reconstruction, which I battled to hold onto in the divorce proceedings. During my seventeen months imprisonment, I worked out a strategy, researching sources of funding and tax breaks. With no competition in the county that I could discover, I thought it would have a reasonable chance to succeed financially. The prospects of a new career kept me going. I found that the desire to continue the good work had not departed. But more than that, what actually cheered me up, was the exquisite irony of offering a humanitarian service to the very people intent on turning my life into a living hell.
After Forbes’ late night invasion, I followed developments on the town’s website, where a photo of Daphne, a forty-two-inch-tall five-year-old with ravishing black eyes, accompanied the call for community action. Daphne had last been seen at the playground of the organic food co-op half a mile down the road where her babysitting grandmother was shopping. When grandma emerged with her canvas shopping bags filled with obscenely overpriced PC items, the playground was empty. As night fell, the search commenced. The police, fire department, solid waste staff, landscaping crew, basically every town employee who could be spared spread out in all directions from the co-op. Hours later, Daphne’s muddied slicker was found entangled in the Queen Anne’s lace that rimmed the meadow. That’s when Forbes and his team converged on my house, demanding to be let in. I said they were welcomed to only after they did the same to my neighbors. Incensed, Forbes left two cruisers in my driveway and, turning on his siren in impotent spite, sped off to find a judge. It was a formidable display, but I wasn’t fooled. I’d conducted my entire adult life among angry people, and the show of force Forbes was putting on, evidently for the benefit of his deputies, could not have been more transparent had he done so with a Halloween mask and ghoulish sound effects. This was something I had seen in the man before, something that didn’t blend with being a law enforcement bureaucrat who had no choice but to represent a population that seethed with resentment at having a residence for ex-felons within the town borders. It was in the supermarket parking lot when we crossed paths, going in opposite directions, he, out of uniform, his cart loaded, mine retrieved from the queue and empty. Our eyes met and he grinned and nodded in a bemused and confidential way as if we were both party to the great secret joke no one else knew about. It was just the a flash of a smile, but it was unmistakable and so sincere in a subtle way that I stopped and turned around to see if he was looking at someone behind me. The next time he followed up at the house in response to somebody’s baseless fears, he gave no indication that it had ever happened.
In the basement incongruously cohabitating with the paint cans and rollers and plastic tarps accumulated over seventeen years of boarding house maintenance, I located my hip waders. They were a purchase from L.L. Bean I had made pre-imprisonment when I was invited by several men in the fellowship to join them on a fly fishing weekend. The trip was cancelled when a hundred-year nor’easter dropped six inches of rain on the county in twelve hours and turned the creek where the trip was planned into a class five rapid. The hip waders remained undisturbed in their plastic wrappings ever since. I pulled them on and with the old rubber squeaking in protest crossed the road. Forbes was scanning the meadow, but apparently also keeping an eye on my front door. I angled away from him, but he caught up and blocked me with his body.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he said.
“The web site says you need help.”
“You can help by going back into your house.”
Forbes is not quite young enough to be my son, but we could be related, two barrel-chested men of medium height and ruddy complexion, which on him had gotten enflamed with the cold rain and my appearance. Under normal conditions our face-off may have attracted attention. But most of the gathering was quietly watching a young couple listening to one of Forbes’ deputies closer to the meadow. The woman wore no head covering and her short wet hair had been driven back from her forehead. Her eyes, oval and dark, much like Daphne’s, were freighted with weariness and reflected moderate sedation, a look I recalled well from my counseling. The young man at her side had one arm clamped around her shoulders as if to keep her upright. Behind them stood an older woman, whose mouth was agape like that of a grounded trout struggling to breathe. Her head bent at an uncomfortable angle, she listened to the deputy, but stayed several feet removed from the couple and clearly reluctant to stand any closer.
“Why don’t you ask them if they don’t want my help,” I said, pointing my chin at the couple.
“I’m in charge here,” Forbes said, but he said it with neither conviction nor a follow-up plan and walked away.
He called for everyone to line up, facing the meadow. I went straight to the middle of the line. There were twenty five or thirty of us and Forbes said we should stand one arm’s length apart.
“Just reach out and touch the shoulder of the person on your left,” he said. “That’s the separation we want. I should have mentioned first that you’re going to be holding hands, so…” He was going to say something to lighten the mood and relax the volunteers, but he caught himself in time and didn’t. “It’s not a race. The deputies and me will be in front. Just match our pace. Don’t let go of your partners’ hands. And most important, keep your eyes on the ground. If you see anything that’s not there naturally, clothing, candy wrappers, anything, say ‘here.’ Say it loud and stop walking. We have to look at everything. We’re going to go up and down till we cover the whole field. And then we’re going to go into the woods. It’s going to be long and tedious, and we’re not taking any breaks. If there’s anybody here who isn’t up for that, it’s best that you leave now.”
His eyes ran laterally back and forth along the line, not settling on anyone. But then he stopped and looked directly at me and my hip waders.
“And there are mud holes,” said Forbes. “So you’re feet are going to get wet.”
Uniformly the search party glanced down at their footwear. There were some murmurs, but no one bailed. Forbes did an about face. The rain had ceased, abruptly and completely. To my left a young man with an expensive-looking black leather jacket with epaulets and many straps that served no functional purpose and who did not look like a local, took my hand. On my other side I reached for the hand of Daphne’s mother. I squeezed it softly, and she looked at me with her immense, tragic eyes. I nodded and smiled. Then, following Forbes’ lead, we started walking.
Manny texted Phil and me the night before and said we could join the search if we wanted and didn’t have to open up. With his arthritic knee, Phil would be a drag on any search that wasn’t electronic, and if I had wanted to go he would have just stayed in his trailer polishing his heirloom collection of Walking Liberty fifty cent coins.
Of course I knew Daphne, a quiet, self-possessed girl whose Down syndrome was so mild it would be noticeable on first meeting her only to a professional. Daphne’s mom would drop her off with Donna so she could drive to the Wellness Center for an aerobics class or have lunch with several of her Middlebury dormmates, who for obscure reasons had also settled in one of the more culturally humble counties in the state. Despite Daphne being probably the most placid kid I had ever met, Donna could not abide her roaming free among the treasures in her great room. So she took her down to the finished basement with her Squigz and Teeter Popper and told me to drop in on her now and then.
Donna meanwhile did what she always did, at least while I was there vacuuming acres of Persian rugs and repurposed wide-plank flooring and bending my brain around how to cook kombu for her vegan dinners and picking up her dry cleaning. She was a founding member and on the board of the Orleans Land Trust, a position with no meaningful responsibilities other than raising money. When she first told me that’s what she did, I grimaced inwardly. For a time, I had worked the phones for MASS NOW, trying to read the same spiel with every call and rarely getting through the second sentence before the line was cut. The goal for solicitors was twofold – convince people at the other end of cold calls to make a contribution by, foolishly, surrendering their credit card number over the phone, and, second, enduring with no loss of enthusiasm relentless rejection, insults about my faith and patriotism, and, when certain non-supporters of NOW answered the phone, colorful descriptions of various parts of my body being penetrated. I was instructed to find the sweet spot – a place where I could retain passion about NOW’s message while staying indifferent to being generally regarded as gob of spit on the sidewalk. I never got there. Each rejection stung me personally, an accumulation of failures that at the end of the day left me emotionally black and blue, insomniac, and hating NOW and everybody else, including myself.
No so with Donna. When I arrived at the six-bedroom, seven-bath alpine estate she occupied with no one else, not even a cat, she would park herself with a couple of bottles of spring water at her virtual call center in her sun room overlooking her goldfish pond. There she proceeded to blithely click through her list of names as if she was firming up invitations for her Christmas party. Chuckles, amiable chatter, and lots of thank-you-so-muches for helping the Orleans Land Trust wafted through the rooms like buzzing insects reminding me of my past failures. Several times I wanted to tell her about my own experience and ask how she did it. But my question and any answer she gave would only have made the gulf between us starker than it already was. Besides, I had already decided that Donna’s batting average had less to do with charm and her ersatz British accent than with who she was – the wealthiest widow in the county. I didn’t need to hear her tell me that I had no choice but to succeed where she did and the confidence and absence of it attached to that difference could be sensed over the phone lines. Or she would have just looked perplexed and told me she contributed to NOW all the time.
The first time Daphne got into the chimney it was on me. That day, Donna greeted me in the kitchen with a recipe for broccoli and Spanish olive quiche she had torn from the Times-Argus. She said she hadn’t had a quiche in ages and was so excited about the prospect that she went out and bought the ingredients that she spread out on the kitchen island waiting for me. She told me Daphne was in the basement and went off to notch fifty-dollar donations to preserve the open spaces of the Northeast Kingdom. Naturally she expected me to roll out the pastry from scratch, which I assured her I could do even though the only time I had attempted this step, the result resembled a sleeping octopusI knew, when I remembered to peek into the basement, that I had waited too long.
“Daphne,” I called from the top of the stairs, my arms powered with flour up to my elbows. “Daphne sweetheart.”
She didn’t answer, and when I found her, she was standing fully in the firebox, the toe of one foot scraping the brick wall in an evident attempt to ascend. After persuading her to step out, we had a chat. As I wiped the soot from her nose, Daphne’s fluttered her lovely eyes and hugged me happily. The next day, I caught her sooner. This time she wasn’t happy or willing. I had to yank a bit, which caused a prolonged vocalization of displeasure that brought Donna scurrying down the stairs. I suggested transferring Daphne to the great room.
“I told you I don’t want that,” she said. “Just put up the screen.”
That worked for a day. And then it didn’t. Daphne was finding cracks inside the chimney that served as perfect holds for her little toes and fingertips. I had to crawl in and pluck her from the bricks as if she were a kitten that had climbed up the drapes. She was screwing up her face, readying another cannonade. But I had a plan.
“Do you want to make cupcakes with me?”
She clapped her hands, sending up a puff of soot, and for the moment forgot about the chimney. I took her up to the kitchen and sponged her off. Two hours later, after we had at last gotten the pan into the oven and I had cleaned up most of the mess, Daphne’s mother returned. She had been swimming at the state college down I-91. Her pixie cut was still damp, circling back around her ears, and she had not reapplied her makeup. Like her mom, she was petite. This all came together to make her approachable. Without having even considered how it might play out, I told her about her daughter and the chimney and Donna’s insistence that Daphne remain in the basement. Her facial expression started curious and then drifted into vacancy. She shifted her eyes in the direction of the sun room, then nodded slightly. It was not a nod meant for me.
“Thank you,” she said.
It was a Friday, and the next Monday afternoon I drove up the driveway, which curved around pockets of giant holly bushes and rhododendrons so that only the gingerbread-trimmed gables of the house could be seen from the road. Donna was standing out front. She had a small piece of paper in her hand.
“You can get back in your car,” she said, handing me the check.
There’s a hot, hollowing sensation that goes with being fired. I’d felt it before. Nothing else quite like it, even when it’s expected, which, this time, it wasn’t.
“Is this what happens when I do the right thing?”
“The right thing, my dear, is loyalty. I see now I should have mentioned that. I won’t make that mistake again.”
“I was just looking out for Daphne, like you told me.”
She was on her way back up the path, a winding strip of small golden pebbles fitted with black stone steps. The check had two extra weeks of pay. Later I would concede that was the right thing.
“Donna,” I called. “Can I say goodbye to Daphne?”
She stopped, but did not turn.
“Daphne’s not here,” she said and continued up the path.
Stovell, the crux in my improvised search line, watching me in placid expectation, sent me back twenty years when I saw him for the first time lighting the candle in the chalice, the flaming chalice, the heart of UU imagery, and spreading his arms in invitation to the fellowship to join him in the words of welcome. Behind him was a single stained glass window depicting the pagan tree of life, that and the chalice the only dimly spiritual signs in the renovated barn butting the Canadian border. It was the first service of the fall and packed with old timers and young couples with raging infants and a few Quebecois who had driven down from Magog or Stanstead. Stovell tried a few words of French, chuckled and apologized.
I sat in a folding chair in last row in the hall, closest to the front door, and listened intently to Stovell’s drippy address. In the programs he declined to call them sermons, and every one I sat through after that sounded pretty much the same – this being a loving community, accepting of the good in every faith and every individual, united against bigotry in all its forms and so forth. It was so blissed-out, and as I drove back to the station, I laughed and shook my head. The next week I went back, and again most weeks after that until the roof fell in.
I gave up going to church in high school. It was the final step in a transition that stretched drearily over my sophomore and junior years like gasoline dripping unseen from a pinhole in a ten-thousand gallon underground tank. Some would call it loss of faith, but it wasn’t because the tank was not filled with faith; it was filled with denial since there was no faith to lose and I just didn’t see it. When finally I put all the pieces together and saw myself for what I was, I drove up to Prouty Beach where I had spent nine straight summers camping with my folks, always the last week in August. I parked and sat in the bed of my pickup and looked up at the Milky Way in February. It was my birthday, eighteen and headed the next day to enlist in the state National Guard. It was also my baptism, witnessed by great light in the greater darkness. It was minus twenty, at least, and tears of relief froze on my cheeks.
After that, mom asked me once if I was going to Sunday service with her. I just shook my head, unable to speak, fearful that I would blurt out the truth and break her heart. But she was stronger than that. Alright, Ben, she said without irony. She checked her bangs beneath her straw lampshade hat in the hall mirror, blew me a kiss from the doorway and drove off. We did a lot of compact communication like that after my father, the family talker, passed. Somehow, he caught Hepatitis B, and in his last days, transformed by jaundice and near paralyzed with weakness, resembled a department store mannequin with a bad paint job laying under a hospital sheet. When Mom saw that my non-attendance at the Baptist Church was more than temporary, she casually raised the subject. She said she knew the church was hard and whacky, so much hellfire and rapture. She said I might find the Methodists down on 3rd Street more to my liking.
“Think it over,” she said.
“Sure,” I said
But I’d already thought it over, the Methodists as well as the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the Friends, even the Catholics, thought over all of them. They were all different and all the same and they would all want from me what I didn’t have. I think she wanted to believe I was just one of those Christians without a church. And I preferred to let her think that than find out, years later after the Gulf War and the police academy, that I’d drifted over to the heathens.
It began with a routine call. One of the elderly idolaters had keeled over. I wrote down the time and address and her name and what the others knew about the situation and then we all waited for the EMTs. The women gathered around, running a damp towel up and down her forearms and assuring her it was nothing. The whole time, she fixed her eyes on Stovell, who stood a few steps away doing nothing at all, just nodding if someone spoke to him. In the war I’d learned that there are certain people you wanted to be near. It had nothing to do with rank. There was a nineteen year old who grew up on a cattle ranch in Cotton County, Oklahoma, and, I think, had never before left the state, even to raise a little hell in the cowboy saloons in Wichita Falls. What he did was follow orders, polish up his gear and play touch football with the rest of us behind the mess tent. Yet when we patrolled through the greasy black vapors blowing over the burning oil fields in Kuwait City, he was always the first to spot vehicles moving between the towers and hear the sonic boom of the F-15s approaching from ten miles off. In our platoon, there was a silent acknowledgment that if we were going to be hit, he would be the first to know and so it was him we watched. For all I knew, it came from growing up with cows. Stovell had it too, and as he walked beside the old gal being wheeled on gurney to the ambulance, there was a palpable sense that nothing more than this could be done.
I became one of those marginal figures that sat alone, usually semi-hidden behind someone taller than me and as far as possible from the flaming chalice, promptly fleeing to the parking lot when Stovell wrapped it up with the may it be so. Once, when talking about the fellowship’s volunteer work with the Abenakis, he made a subtle appeal to those who attend but linger in the corners and never participate. Heat raced up my neck to the crown of my head, and I skipped the next two meetings. I had to hash out how close I wanted to get, whose terms would apply. After deciding they would be mine, I was back in my remote seat, still feeling whatever it was Stovell projected to all who were present, regardless of where they sat.
He must have spotted the cruiser rolling up his driveway and was waiting for us at the top of the steps ascending to the front door. I told him about the complaint and then stood silently near the refrigerator as social worker from Human Services conducted the interview at the kitchen table. If he recognized me, he did not let on. Stovell was calm, and what he said would be the same, almost word for word, to the answers he would give months later at his trial. When asked, he said, no, he did not sexually assault his daughter. He stuck to the facts as he perceived them – Yes, I was naked with an erection… Yes, I walked through my daughter’s room… No, I got nowhere near her bed... Harbored thoughts of sexual contact? Never. I loved my wife. I still love her.
I sat in civies – in the rear of the courtroom naturally. Stovell’s wife was a tall woman, taller than Stovell and me, but when she sat in the first row behind the prosecutor’s bench, she scrunched herself up like someone freezing to death. Never for a second did I believe the charges. But the defense attorney’s case was thin. She refrained, certainly under Stovell’s direction, from attacking the mother’s character with instances of neglecting her daughter or acting irresponsibly. Other than a few sighs, a quiet resignation greeted the verdict in the packed courtroom. On the days I attended the trial, I never saw one face from the meeting house. It appeared Stovell and his fellowship had parted ways, and, absent Stovell radiating his inner certainty through the farmhouse, I did the same with the fellowship.
Somewhere along the third trip across the field the mom began to say the kid’s name.
“Daphne,” she said.
Her voice was exhausted, not much more than a whisper, but everyone in the party was quiet, futilely going about the work of searching for clues, and the single word traveled along the line. Forbes paused, turned, then looked north again and kept moving. She was one link removed from me and when I glanced over she seemed unsure of where she was or what she was doing, searching every which way except down to the ground where Forbes told us all to concentrate. Progress had been maddeningly slow, a march cast from a bad dream as the mud sucked at our feet, forcing us to lean forward to free ourselves only to get stuck again a couple of steps farther on. After an hour, I was soaked halfway to my knees, as was everyone else except the few of us smart enough to have worn rubber boots. We had stopped a couple of times for random pieces of trash, a woman’s empty handbag, a car’s shattered sideview mirror and a piece of indistinguishable plastic that may once have been a child’s toy that caused a small stir. People gathered around to have a look, and Forbes asked them to stay in place so as not to lose time. Forbes’ deputies bagged each item, and then the line reformed and the slog continued. At the far edge of the field a couple of other uniforms were entering the woods with tracker dogs.
“Daphne,” the mom repeated, stringing out the a in a singsong way. It wasn’t as if she was calling her daughter, or, if she was, she was reaching out only in her own head. The man to my right, who wore weird fishing boots almost up to his crotch and whose warm dry hand never faltered in mine, spoke to her.
“Do you want to rest?”
She shook her head. Then, a bit farther on, she stopped walking and without expressing any intention to do so, bent at the knees and sat right down on the wet ground. Progressing from the middle outward to the ends, the line slowed and stopped. The man with the tall boots squatted beside her, and then Forbes walked over. One by one, the searchers released each other’s hands and milled about, watching and waiting.
“What if you and I go wait on the road?” the man in the boots said to the mom. “Let the others do this.”
“I lost my kid,” she said. “A mother doesn’t lose her kid. There’s no forgiveness for losing your kid.”
Behind us someone inhaled loudly, a single mournful note. The man in the boots placed his large hand against the mom’s back. Forbes leaned close to him and spoke privately, but I was right there and I heard him.
“You take her back to her car, Reverend,” said Forbes.
The man looked sharply at Forbes, startled.
“You go on now,” said Forbes. “Take her to the car and sit with her.”
“We have our orders,” the man said, with a small smile, finding the mom’s clenched fingers which were twisted in her coat and raising her easily to her feet. Another man, who looked like a young Cat Stevens, the girl’s father maybe, and an older woman trailed them across the field. Blake, along with everyone else, observed this from a respectful distance. Unlike me, Blake had attached himself warily to the end of the line, and now when our eyes met, he pointed his two fists at me and rolled them left and right. Time to drive. Forbes started rearranging the depleted line, and I told him he’d be losing Blake and me as well.
“So you need to get back to the city?” he said.
“Yes, sir, you know, business,” I said.
“Business, for sure. Well, thanks for the help. But there’s one thing.”
He took a hold of my upper arm and we squished away from the line a bit.
“If you and your partner ever have business up this way again, you’d be wise to stay out of my town.”
Something expanded in my head, air or blood trying to push to freedom through the inner walls of my skull. I looked to where Blake had been, but he was gone, and when I found him, he was moving at full speed and already halfway back to the road where we had parked.
He was putting on dry socks when I got to the Escalade. The GPS talked us back to the interstate where I set the cruise control at sixty five and drove very straight, my eyes jumping non-stop to the rearview mirror. Fifty miles down the road, exhaustion punched me like a heavy fist squarely in the chest. I turned into a truck stop and parked at the edge of the lot, hidden from the highway behind a tractor trailer and facing a wood of tall skinny trees sprouting pale spring growth at their tops. Blake had dozed off, folded up in his hoodie, breathing deeply. After a time, I tapped my finger against the steering wheel, harder and harder, until he stirred and found me watching him.
“What?” he said.
“Do you remember the fight I had with Artie Zambardo?”
“Yeah, he knocked off your glasses and stepped on them. And then both of you went at it with baseball bats.”
“And you went and got my mom.”
“I ran to your building. She sprinted right down the stairs without her shoes and got there before you two cracked open each other’s heads.”
“I wouldn’t have done that if it was you.”
“Got your mother.”
“What would you have done?
“Just watched, and, I don’t know, maybe tried to break it up.”
“Well, with my mom that would have been the smarter thing to do.”
Blake got behind the wheel and filled up at the pump. Back on the interstate we tuned to a news station and learned that the lost girl had been found in a 7-Eleven near Syracuse. The News ran a story the next day. She was just walking through the aisles, clutching a pack of licorice. The cops said she had probably been left off at the store’s rear door and wandered in. But a neighbor, quoted in the story, said she was certain Daphne had been carried there by angels.