Even now we seem to be waiting for something whose appearance would be its vanishing.
You asked me, sir, to tell you about my son’s disappearance. I must admit that I did not know what to think when your first letter arrived. And when you phoned, I think I was a bit startled by all your attention. We don’t get many phone calls here, you see. But since last week, when I told you an interview was out of the question, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about Nathan and how, as a mother, I have a duty. Others should know the truth. You wanted to know what life was like here, in my house, in my family, with Nathan and then, afterwards, without him. It’s not as simple as that, though. A person isn’t here one day, then gone the next. If I’m going to tell you anything, it won’t be what you’re expecting. It might not be what you want to hear. But, in any case, I’ll tell you what I know. What I know is the truth.
From the beginning, his growing absence was oppressive. If I was not in the kitchen making supper for Sarah and myself, I was attending to my son in his room. We seemed to eat a lot during those days. An affliction of hunger consumed us that could not be satisfied. As Nathan disappeared, Sarah and I ate and ate. I made meals we’d never heard of, recipes out of foreign cookbooks, fancy dishes that required an orange peel or a sculptured radish rosette on the side. We were pretending to have money, even though we had no money. I do have money now, though. Now that Nathan is not so demanding. Yes, sir, Sarah and I are off the dole.
We ate exotic foods, Thai and Indian curries. We ground our own spices in the coffee grinder. Also we had a peculiar taste for Ethiopian, and Sarah and I would sometimes joke about this. You know, how starving those people are and how we craved their recipes. What a laugh! It was a laugh then, I tell you. I had my own boy starving. Starving for solidity. Sometimes he could barely move off of his bed.
Do you know those movies where a person suddenly acquires the ability to walk through walls? The ones where someone becomes transparent to the point that no one else can see them unless looked at very hard? The Invisible Man? Movies like that? Let me tell you, they’re a pack of lies. Those people never seem to have problems. They move through life more easily in fact. Now they can walk through moving traffic and never have to wait for the light. Now they can strip off their clothes and sneak into shower rooms to watch people, bodies, drifting through steam, larger than life, without ever getting caught.
There were days when Nathan couldn’t bring himself to go to the bathroom on his own. There were days when Sarah and I tried to help him into the shower, but he fell through our hands, through the hardwood floor, down into the living room. We’d find him lying under the coffee table, his arms threaded through the table legs. Or, once, splayed out in the middle of the broken plants and pottery he’d landed on. I was always frightened. Someday, I thought, he will fall and fall forever, and then where will he go? I remembered how, when we were little, we thought if a person dug a deep enough hole in the ground, they’d fall through to China. Our parents frightened us with thoughts like that. Why was it they wanted to frighten us?
Nathan never fell to China. Or if he did, he fell back in time for me not to notice. I don’t think this is possible. I don’t think this ever happened. Still, though, I’ll leave it open. I have learned to leave things open, sir. Have you?
It was a Friday last September the school called me. The school nurse said, “I think you need to come down.” I told her that I had to work, and she said, “I really think you should come down, Miss Livingston.” She said my name real tough-like, like she was gritting her teeth.
“All right,” I said. “All right. I’ll come down.”
Nathan was waiting for me in the nurse’s office. He was lying on a table, like in a doctor’s exam room, with the crackling paper rolled over its top. Only that paper didn’t crackle. It didn’t make any noise at all. Now being a doctor yourself, sir, you know you can’t shut that paper up. Even though you are up there at the university studying “the social implications of phenomena”, as you put it in your letter, and are in great need of “personal narratives” and “statistics” so that the research will be “pure”, and are not a real doctor, practicing medicine and such, I’m sure you have been on one of those tables before. Not even staying completely still, which is impossible if you ask me, will shut that paper up. I asked, “What’s wrong? What’s happened here?” And the nurse, a woman who was not as severe as I had expected, a woman who wore a fuzzy blue sweater and did not have her hair up in a bun but let it fall over her shoulders like dark cream, she said, “I’m so sorry.”
I went over to Nathan and looked at his eyes. His eyes were open, but he didn’t seem to see me. They were blue eyes, watery eyes, my father’s eyes. When he was born, how happy I was to see those eyes! Not my husband’s, who was a drunkard and a cheater, not his eyes. I said, “Nathan? Honey, what’s wrong?” His lips trembled. I thought, What am I going to do? Already I knew without knowing what afflicted him that things were going to change.
The nurse put her arm around me and said, “Be calm.” She unbuttoned Nathan’s shirt, one button at a time, her fingers were so deft, and pulled back each side of his shirt like a curtain. If you could see what I saw that day. It was not always like that, I assure you. Nathan: his chest, only his chest, had gone translucent. I saw those lungs filling and expelling air, two brownish, soggy sacs going up and down, up and down. And his heart, it throbbed beneath them. The blood slid through his veins and I thought of blue rivers winding on a map. The nurse covered him over again and began buttoning his tiny buttons. And look here, I thought, even those buttons are clear.
Perhaps I am exaggerating this all a bit. I don’t know. This is how I remember it: his lungs, his heart, the blood in his veins and arteries, the webbing of his nerves. Sir, I know you are a not a real doctor and all, but let me ask you something. Have you ever seen anything like this? Have you ever seen your own child like this? Sir, do you have children?
I took my son home and, while we drove in the car, neither of us said anything. Nathan looked out the window at the passing mills and factories, the ones that all closed down years ago. Their smokeless stacks loomed above us, gray against the gray sky. I live on the South side of town, not the best place to raise children, Lord knows, but I did the best I could.
The factories we passed were tattooed with graffiti. The gridwork of their windows was busted out. Kids used to come down to the mills to paint their names, to spray-paint their useless childhood loves, to mark down their childhood enemies as though they were making hit lists. They threw rocks, pieces of broken concrete, at the gridded windows high overhead. The glass would shatter and rain down at their feet, onto the factory floors, and oh, how we laughed and gripped each other’s shoulders at these small victories. It felt good to bust up those places that broke first our parents’ backs, and then, after shutting down, their spirits.
I think Nathan and his friends did this, too. To let out frustration. I don’t know. I’m only guessing. It’s something I’ve learned to do.
For the first few months, things were not so bad. Not as bad as some of the others I’ve heard of. Nathan was not quick to disperse and he did it quietly. He lingered, and Sarah and I began to eat.
I will say here that I do not blame Sarah for what she did. She was only sixteen. She was jealous of her little brother. Nathan had been popular at school. After he started to disappear, I think she expected that popularity to wane a little. Instead, six other students started to disappear as well. Several of them girls who I hear had crushes on Nathan. He was a good-looking boy. He could turn heads, just like a pretty girl.
I had phone calls, let me tell you. Muffled voices in the middle of the night, hoarse voices threatening to burn down my house, to cut my brake lines, to put a bomb in my mailbox. Just keep your kid away from mine! But we both know, sir, this disease is not catching. I’m glad to see the new commercials and ads informing people of this.
Sarah — well, she was unhappy. She sulked in her bedroom and listened to sulky music, and sometimes she’d come into whatever room I was in and she’d sulk there. I made her doughnuts to perk her up, fried them myself, and then she’d be a happy girl for several hours. It was worth it to see her smiling around a cinnamon doughnut, her favorite, even though she did gain an awful lot of weight. Acne, too. Little red bumps spread over her cheeks and on her chin, cranberry-colored. She always complained because they were the kind you couldn’t pop, you had to wait until they decided to go away on their own, there were no white heads on them to pinch. They took so long to go away. I was sorry I couldn’t afford a dermatologist for her then.
As I mentioned, I don’t blame her for what she did.
One day I came home from shopping to find two women in my living room. They were dressed in elegant black dresses, wore black high heels, and one of them covered her face with a veil. My living room smelled of lilies, thick and sweet.
They were Mourners. I could tell that from the start.
They had knocked on my door before, usually on Sundays, and Sarah and I had hid behind the curtains of the picture window, sneaking glances out, waiting for them to leave. I don’t know how they knew about Nathan. I assume they had an informant at the hospital, even though those records of Nathan’s visits are supposed to be private.
Sarah sat in a chair opposite them on the couch. She’d set out a tray of sugar cookies on the coffee table between them. When I saw those cookies, the sugar glittering like grains of powdered glass on top, I almost ran over to snatch them away from those women. I said, “What’s all this?” I still held the grocery bags in my hands.
One of the ladies stood up and extended her hand. She was the one without the veil. She said, “Hello, Mrs. Livingston. I’m Hilary Love. So pleased to meet you.”
I looked at the hand for a moment. She wasn’t taking it back. It floated there between us, so finally I set down my bags and shook it.
The other lady was a widow. Her name was Sally Parkinson. Her husband had disappeared last year. She said, “We’ve been having a wonderful talk with your daughter.”
I said, “Go to your room, Sarah.” I gave her a look and she didn’t say anything, but went straight up the stairs, her feet thumping unpleasantly all the way up.
“Now Mrs. Livingston,” said the Widow Parkinson. “There’s no need to be angry with her. She’s a delightful girl, full of life.”
I said, “Don’t talk to me of life.” I asked, “Why are you here and what have you said to my daughter?”
“Nothing,” they swore. “Nothing, Mrs. Livingston.”
Now that’s the last time I allowed that. I corrected them. “It’s Miss Livingston, thank you very much,” I said.
They said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“No need to be sorry,” I said. “He was a worthless drunk. He used to hit me. I threw him out.”
“We want to talk to you about Nathan,” they explained. But I already knew that.
I told them, “Take your pamphlets and yourselves out of my house. He is not dead.”
“Oh, but Miss Livingston,” said the Widow Parkinson. “You don’t realize it yet. You’re in denial. You just wait, one day you will understand.”
Hilary Love patted the widow’s leg when she said this, then squeezed her knee. She left her hand there and her fingers spread over the widow’s knee like the jointed legs of a spider. The widow, you see, she thought the same as me at first. She thought maybe her husband’s not really dead, maybe he’s not really disappearing. Maybe, she thought, he is simply shifting over to a different kind of life. I nodded. I agreed with that. She said, “Miss Livingston, I was wrong. He was dead from the day he started to vanish, and we are here to help you deal with that. You must understand, Nathan is gone and you are neglecting a very much alive daughter. Let us take what’s left of him to a center, where he can continue this final process in private. You must get on with your life. It can take so long, such a long time for him to go. In fact, he is already gone. Only the body is remaining, such as it is.”
That threw me, so I stood and asked them to leave. I waved my hand in the direction of the front door. They hesitated, blinking dumbly at each other, so I asked them not to make me call the police. They nodded. “Yes,” they said. “Of course,” they said. I escorted them to the door and left them out in the cold of that autumn day, with the wind blowing red and gold leaves onto the steps of my porch. Later, when I passed by the door, I found a pamphlet one of them had stuffed in the jamb. On the cover, in large letters, it said: LET THE DEAD BURY THE DEAD. I wrinkled my nose. What did they know about being dead anyway? I threw the pamphlet in the trash.
I didn’t yell at Sarah. I didn’t carry on and tell her how much she’d hurt me. We were supposed to be a team in this, and here she was, letting in the enemy. I grilled a steak and sautéed onions for her that night.
Nathan — he continued to grow in his absence. Almost every day was different. Some days I’d find him quite substantial, with sweat beaded on his forehead. Sweat I could touch and wipe away, as though he were simply a fevered child. Believe me, though, this was not a regular event. Most days he was gone as much as a ghost. I could pass my hands right through him. His body would seal around my hands as if I had plunged them into water. Lord, I even expected him to wash away sometimes! But somehow he pulled himself together. He was a fighter — he always fought — up till the end.
In the middle of all this I lost my job at the paper. I’d been inserting advertisements and coupons into the local newspaper for a little over minimum wage. You know, on the assembly line with several other women, catching the papers as they came down our row, folding the ads into them quick as you can. I came home with my fingers inked black. If I didn’t wash my hands straight away, I’d leave prints all over the house. Cupboard doors, drinking glasses, the handle of the refrigerator. Ink smudges everywhere. You could always tell where I’d been.
I lost the job because I called off too much. I had to take care of Nathan, and some days I couldn’t bear to leave him alone in that big old house, with only Sarah’s sulky presence.
Some days he looked so frightened. I can’t remember his eyes ever closing for more than a few hours at a time. And when he did close them, it didn’t matter. Those eyelids were clear, and I could see his blue eyes behind them, as if I’d bent down to look through a keyhole, to find him staring back at me from the other side.
One day, when he had enough strength to squeeze out a few words and asked me to sit with him a while, I called my boss, Albert, and said, “My boy’s not doing well, Albert. I have to stay home.”
“That boy’s never doing well, Em,” said Albert. “Doris Eliot’s girl has the same thing your boy has, and Doris makes it to work okay. I need you here.”
It was a Saturday night, so there were obviously a lot of inserts of ads and coupons for the Sunday paper.
I said, “I can’t. He spoke today, Al. I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
“I can’t hold your job either, Em,” said Al. He said, “I’m sorry, too.”
So that’s why I was on the dole for a while, sir. After Nathan’s dilemma ended, though, I immediately went back to work. I am not the sort to take and take for no good reason.
I never gave up on Nathan. Not like so many of these other families of the Disappeared do. Let me tell you, I held firm in my convictions. He was not dead, like the Mourners would have us believe. I know this. I have proof. He’s not dead still, and I will even tell you why.
After nearly twelve months, Nathan had almost completely disappeared. At the end, or what seems like it is the end for most people, I would look in on him and could barely make him out. He was thin, unlike Sarah and myself, and the blanket I’d covered him with barely moved as he breathed. Once I held a mirror under his nose and it came back with just a dusting of white steam. It made me happy to see even that. I drew a heart in the condensation and showed it to Nathan. Look, I wanted to say, here is proof. He smiled a thin smile back, his lips parting to reveal his upper row of teeth. His teeth weren’t white, though, and they appeared unenameled. They winked briefly with light. I saw tendrils of roots, brown nerves, suspended inside them. I didn’t say anything, but his teeth looked like glass.
He became completely clear at one point. Clear as those transparent pages of the human body you will find in some encyclopedias. Like the plastic models of the human body in biology classrooms, I saw everything he held inside. The cage of his ribs; the lungs and heart moving blindly as a cat under a blanket; the intestines, both upper and lower, twisted together; the butterfly-shaped pelvis; and, of course, his skull, with his blue eyes looking jellyish in their sockets. There was so much of his life beyond me, so much I didn’t know. Here he was, revealing his most private organs, and I still knew nothing at all. What were his favorite colors, his favorite music? Where did he like to spend his afternoons? Was he really as popular at school as I’d imagined? Why had he, for the past two years, taken to holing himself up in the attic on weekends, carrying along a supply of books, food, pillows and blankets, refusing to eat dinner in the kitchen with Sarah and me, saying angrily, “Can’t I do anything without you knowing? Don’t you know what privacy is?” Was it my fault I had no husband, or one that was worthless, and that I had to work afternoons and evenings to support the kids? I’m not asking for pity, sir. Lord knows I did the best I could.
I could say things about him. I could say he was a sad child. Next to him, Sarah’s melancholy seemed like happiness. I could say he needed a father figure. He needed a school where he did not have to worry about being robbed or shot. He needed friends who did not give him drugs. I found them — I was not unaware. But what could I do? If I threw a fit, grounded him, said to get a job, snapped his cigarettes in half, brought out from the attic the other stuff, screamed, Not In My House, as loud as I could, stamped my feet, shook him by his narrow shoulders, hugged him and wept, said, Please Don’t Do This To Me, I Can’t Bear It Any Longer — what use would that have been? Would it have kept him in his body?
I could say he was not as strong as my daughter. He could not stand up to the pressure as Sarah has. She has my blood in her. He was weak like his father. Instead of the drink, he chose to disappear, so that no one could ever touch him — could ever hurt him — again. I could say for your benefit, sir, He was not made for this world. There are some people who just simply cannot thrive. Would that help your studies? There, I’ve said it. Consider it a gift.
By the following December, Nathan’s insides had disappeared as well. He was now entirely transparent, a plastic model of the human body without a view of the organs. I crawled into bed with him one day and lay there and hummed, in case he could still hear. I thought that might be a comfort. A year and a half he lay on that bed, flickering. How do you comfort that?
I went out into the blizzardy snow one evening and bought him a fish. I went to one of the top-notch places, one of the stores in the mall. I wanted him to have the best fish, the very best. When he was a little boy he wanted one, and I, foolishly, hadn’t allowed it. Instead, I had tugged on his arm and hissed, “They’re too expensive!”
I bought the whole set-up: the aquarium and the filters, the diver figurine that rested on the layer of blue stones at the bottom, the cave for him to explore. When I looked in one of the store’s tanks, I found something called ghost fish swimming inside. You could almost miss seeing them, if you didn’t look hard. The ghost fish were completely translucent, except for the tiny shadows of their skeletons cupped in their transparent flesh. They swam in hordes, back and forth across the tank, miniature fish skeletons rippling the water. The saleswoman helping me said, “Those are our best sellers.”
“They won’t do,” I said. I didn’t explain. I bought a Siamese fighting fish instead, with all those iridescent colors: blue and purple and red shining scales. The fins trailed around its body like silk scarves. I thought, How beautiful. I had forgotten such a thing could exist. It was so insistent on being seen.
The saleswoman helping me said, “Just don’t put two of this type in the same tank or they’ll fight. They’re fighting fish.” She explained how they puff up really large and all of their colors turn radioactive, how they tear into each other as though one tank isn’t big enough for the both of them. I laughed and laughed. I had to hold my aching stomach. She made it sound like a Western movie.
I don’t know if it was a comfort to Nathan, but it was to me. I needed something in his room. A fish that insists on being seen seemed right.
The night before Christmas, Sarah and I gathered around his bed to open presents. Nathan could not be moved. My hands swam through him if I tried to lift him, and Sarah had no better luck. We had wanted to take him down by the fireplace — with the stockings hanging on the mantel — down by the Christmas tree to see its winking lights. After running our hands through his body though — after that, we gave up. The fish tank gurgled on top of Nathan’s scarred wooden desktop, casting bluish light over the room, rippling water shadows over the walls. The Siamese fighting fish floated in the water. It watched us seriously. Maybe it wished not to be separated by the plate of aquarium glass. I wanted to smack it, tell it to leave us alone, that this was a private moment. As glad as I was to have that fish in Nathan’s room, it was starting to feel like competition.
I gave Sarah a new sweater and jeans, and the latest CD of her favorite sulky music. She hugged me and I almost cried to feel her arms tighten around my shoulders. I thought, Why haven’t we been hugging all the time?
Nathan was barely present. His head was tilted towards Sarah and me, and I think I saw him smile once or twice. I don’t know. I might have imagined it. But in my memory, he smiled.
The next day he was gone. I woke and wandered sleepily into his room to find his bed empty. The blanket lay across his bed in rumpled hills and valleys, but underneath, nothing stirred. I sucked my breath in hard, so hard it cut down the length of my throat like a knife. That first breath wasn’t enough, though, and I kept gasping for air. Each time I did, the knife cut deeper.
I attacked the bed, scooped up armfuls of quilting and sheets. I think I howled a curse. I screamed, “Nathan! Nathan!” over and over. I threw off every blanket and then the mattress, the box springs. I would have ripped up the floorboards if I’d had the strength. I ran downstairs and looked in the living room, where sometimes he’d land after a fall in the past. He wasn’t there. I ran down to the basement and searched through boxes full of discarded memories, but he was not there.
He was not there.
He was not there. Not anywhere in the house. Sarah finally found me in the kitchen, nibbling a Christmas cookie, one of those that have been cut into a shape. I was eating a Christmas tree trimmed with green frosting. She asked me what was the matter and I shook my head. She knelt beside me and said, “Mommy.” I almost cried. She never called me that. It was always Mother. Never a sign of affection from that girl, but I am proud of her for that. In this way, she is protected.
I didn’t know what to do, what the procedures were, so I took the bus to the hospital. I went to the ward where Nathan had had tests at one time. There was a nurse at the desk, scribbling on a pad. I said, “My son —
“He’s doing well,” she told me. I blinked. “You’re Mrs. Murphy, right?” I nodded, wanting to be Mrs. Murphy instead of Mrs. Livingston right then. “You can go in and see him now,” the nurse said. She pointed to the door behind me. I went in. There he was — Mrs. Murphy’s son — sitting in a chair next to his bed, staring out the window. I looked where he was looking, but the window was filled with light. Light so bright, no one could look at it without going blind. I turned to him again and saw the floral pattern of the wallpaper behind him. I saw it through him.
Sarah and I did not eat much after the memorial service. She lost a lot of weight and I got a new job, cleaning rooms at the Bakersfield Inn. I bought her a new wardrobe as soon as I could, and took her to a dermatologist. She was so happy. She practically danced through the front door after school each day. We tried to put Nathan behind us as best we could, but it was difficult. While we ate supper together one evening, Sarah put her fork down on her plate and said, “He’s still here. I can feel him. He isn’t gone, Mother.”
We both looked up at the ceiling for some reason, but there was nothing there.
I should have known she was right, though. She is a smart girl, smarter than I’d ever guessed. She brings home straight A’s. When she said he was still here, I should have believed her.
Several nights after Sarah and I looked up at the ceiling, I heard someone knocking at my front door. It was very late, after midnight. I immediately suspected trouble, but I gathered my robe around me and went down to see who was there.
The knocking grew more insistent as I went downstairs. At first it had been a rapping, but now it became forceful, and the door shook a little in its frame. I grabbed at the collar of my robe, as if that could protect me.
I went to the picture window first, and pulled back the curtain a little. It was snowing outside, the flakes drifting in piles along the windowsill, collecting on the steps of my porch. Under the florescent street lamps, the snow in the front yard, and in my neighbors’ yards, seemed to glow purplish-white under the dark sky. The window was cold. It gave off coldness as a fire will give off heat.
There was no one on my porch, but I still heard the knocking. I pulled back from the window and looked at the door again. It shook in its frame.
I dropped the curtain and went to the door. I opened it just a little, in case someone was out there and I needed to close it quickly. It didn’t matter, though. There was no one. I swung the door wide and stepped outside.
The knocking had stopped as soon as I opened the door. Now I looked around, turning my head quickly one way, then the other, trying to see if any prankster shadows ran off, scurrying down the street, choking on their own laughter. I saw nothing. I looked down, puzzled, and saw the snow piling up on my porch steps, drifting onto the porch itself.
There were no footprints.
I stepped back inside and slammed the door. I locked it. I pressed my back against the door, and again the knocking started. The door bucked at my back, lifting under the blows.
“Stop it, Nathan,” I whispered. “Please stop it.” Sarah was at a friend’s house, spending the night, and I was thankful she was not here right then. The knocking continued.
I ran upstairs and went into his room. I had tried not to go there since that Christmas morning, only to feed the fish and that was all. The bed still lay on the floor in a jumble, mattress and box springs thrown against opposite walls. The fish tank gurgled, its small light glowing in the dark room. The Siamese fighting fish floated inside, fanning its fins. I closed my eyes, opened them. The knocking would not stop.
I went over to the fish tank and peered inside. I pressed so close my head bumped against the glass. The fish must have felt my bump against the aquarium was an attack, though, because suddenly it turned on me, a bloated red tumor, and swam at me, fins flying.
I don’t know what came over me, sir, but I couldn’t help myself. I grew angry too. I couldn’t help it. Perhaps my own face grew bloated and red as well. As the fish charged, I grabbed hold of the edge of the tank and pushed it onto the floor. Glass shattered. Water poured out, and the fish with it. It flipped and flopped on the hardwood floor, next to the diver figurine that had landed nearby.
Sometime during all of this, the knocking had stopped.
He is not dead, as I told you. I want you to say that in your book. That night was only the first in a series of visitations. Sarah has been here to witness several others since. He knocks on the door. He turns on the shower. Sometimes he will even cook us a meal. But his favorite is the knocking. He continues to return to that.
The Widow Parkinson had been right at one time. I suspect that, before she opened her door to the Mourners, her husband had been visiting her as well. But she’s denied what I’ve come to know, down in my bones, deeper even. Sometimes you don’t see things for what they are until they reach a vanishing point.
But that was the widow’s choice. This is mine. Right now, no matter what anyone tells me, I know Nathan is here. He is here, sir, in this house, in these rooms, breathing along with us. He is entirely alive.
If you’re very quiet, you may be able to hear him. It’s him you should be talking to anyway.
I think he has a lot to say.