I used to see Michael’s father nearly every day. He would be sitting on the steps of a church at the corner of Chestnut and Central, his face turned squarely into the bright sun and his eyes would be closed. He could be getting a suntan except that if you wait long enough you see that he periodically drops his head into his hands and remains like that, head bowed and cradled, his shoulders occasionally shaking. He looks like a statue, with his massive, rounded shoulders and great shaggy head bowed low. If you come a little closer, you see that he is a fair-complected man, and now with so much sun exposure, his face is red and swollen.
Here is what they say about him: last fall, a short time before his son was about to start kindergarten, his wife killed herself. They say that the little family was new in town and that no one knew them, and that now he might be suicidal too. Or they say that he was depressed long before any of this happened and that that was the reason she did what she did, but I think, this can’t be right. No one really knows for sure. It is odd and discomfiting to see him acting out his grief in such a public way and no one seems to know what to do about him or his little boy.
The son, this boy with the big, sad man for a father, is in my daughter’s kindergarten class, and when, on the day of the parent orientation, in that kind of giddy excitement associated with a first-born starting school, I made chirpy small talk with the other parents, I remember that he answered my questions in monosyllables and stared resolutely at my left elbow throughout our conversation.
On the first day of kindergarten, the father brought his son up to the classroom door, bent down and said something to the boy that I couldn’t hear, and left. But that was the closest he ever got to the classroom: every day after that he brought the boy to the crossing guard on the opposite side of the street from the school, and it was there that he said his goodbyes. He doesn’t watch as the boy crosses the street and enters the school because he is already on his way to his spot on the church steps.
I didn’t realize it then, but I was counting the days until I could reasonably ask the father if the boy could come over for a play date, and so when that day presented itself, I wasted no time. Michael’s father was wearing what he had worn every day since the beginning: black sweat pants, leather sandals, an ancient, thin tee shirt of no determinate color and a hooded grey sweatshirt—zipped up on the cool mornings and tied around his waist on the warmer days. I can’t remember what I said, or how I asked, nor do I remember what he answered, but the upshot was that Michael could come over to play.
Miraculously the boy still had the protective, first layer of childhood on him. His magic umbilical cord to the Earth still pulsed. He played unselfconsciously with my daughter and her younger sister: the three of them hopping through the house, madly running to and fro while yelling nonsensical commands to one another, stopping to crouch down and examine something only to hop up again and run in the opposite direction. They were lunatics, normal lunatics. When they got tired of running in the house, they went out to the backyard and played on the swing set, and I noticed that Michael was very careful not to swing into the path of the littler sister. When I bent over him, his head smelled of soap and his breath was sweet, and his clothes, in stark contrast to his fathers’, always were clean and ironed, even. He was blond and ruddy, and big-bodied like his father and I fell in love even as I did not admit it to myself.
Things went on this way for quite some time, beyond the Christmas holidays. Every time the play date was over, Michael’s father would come and stand on the sidewalk outside our house, visible from the living room window, and wait until someone noticed him. I would send Michael out by himself, so I never spoke to Michael’s father nor he to me.
Even though the weather was now much colder, he didn’t change his clothes: he wore the same baggy sweatpants, leather sandals and grey hoodie. It wasn’t nearly enough clothing to keep him warm, so once I took a bundle of men’s clothes that I bought at the thrift shop and left them on his front doorstep, very late at night. I didn’t feel comfortable writing his name because I was afraid he might associate this strange gift with me, so I just wrote: hope this comes in handy!!
Across the street lived Mary, the Seventh Day Adventist who was always happy but also always very tired because, I thought, she never ate any meat. Mary was the kind of neighbor who could come over and chat without you having to stop doing what you were doing. Often, she would bring one or both of her boys and while the children played and while I cooked, or tidied up, or did laundry, Mary and I would have long conversations. She had a nice singing voice and could play the piano, so sometimes she would come over and tell me that she was going to practice the piano and did I mind? And of course, I did not mind; in fact, I enjoyed it. But often after she was done practicing, she would want to pray with me and she never let it stop her that I didn't know anything about praying and didn't know how to do it. She would make all of us, children included, sit at the table holding hands and she would ask God to watch out for us, to take care of us in our weakness, and sometimes her face would go very white and she would close her eyes and seem to be listening to a voice that the rest of us didn't hear, and I was always fearful because I didn't know where the fervor of her feeling would take us.
Sometimes Mary babysat my girls and sometimes I babysat her two boys, so I had some free moments now and then. Before Michael and Michael’s father, I used to use the time to go running or to go sit out on the pier and write in my journal, but now what I like to do is walk over to the church on Chestnut and Central and watch Michael’s father. He doesn’t appear to notice me, so I don’t feel odd watching him. He spends most of his time with his face tilted up to the sun, like a plant absorbing the rays of light. His fair skin is red and blotchy and I have to make myself remain quiet and not go up to him and take his head in my hands and turn it away from the damaging sun. I wanted to tell him about how once when I was helping Michael on with his coat I found his snack in the pocket, and when I asked why he hadn’t eaten it, he said that he was saving it for you. I wanted to tell you that. I wanted to tell you that your son was a marvelous creature, that he was still perfect and unspoiled. I entertained the fantasy that Michael would come and stay with us for a while, just until you got better, or more realistically, that you might someday come in and eat something with us, or be with us for a bit. My wishes were modest: just a few moments of interaction with you, some words, a gaze.
One morning I was watching you and I saw that you got up from your spot on the church steps and started walking away. I followed you, pushing the stroller and hoping that my younger daughter would be quiet. I stayed a good distance behind but it was hard because you walked more and more slowly. I thought you were, in your own way, asking me to catch up with you.
Suddenly I felt lifted up off the ground, just a little. My feet were a few inches above the sidewalk and seemed to have a mind of their own, and the stroller rolled along of its own accord. My mouth began to form a question or something. But you spoke first.
“I know what my diagnosis is," you said when I drew close. "It’s a premature rupture of the third cocoon.” And then you walked away. Definitely away. My feet returned to earth and then there was nothing for me to do but walk away in the opposite direction.
The next day a policeman came to my door. Our town is small and the police are friendly, diffident.
“I have a complaint from a Mr.–” he said helpfully. “He says you are bothering him and he wishes you to keep a distance from him and from his son.”
The next day at school I slipped a note into Michael's pocket and told him that it was for his father, and that his father should read it. The note said:
I know about cocoons. I know that we are born and live for a while in a heaven on earth, but this first cocoon doesn’t last forever. Then comes the second cocoon, where we are almost completely sure we will not die tomorrow because we have the illusion that we are immune from the possibility of dire endings. Then comes the third cocoon, where we know we are vulnerable and we accept that dire endings do happen, but hopefully not to us. Please let my children play with Michael and I promise you that I will keep his first cocoon from rupturing. I can do that. I have the power.
Days passed and I didn't dare to speak to Michael's father as he said his brief morning goodbye to his son at the curb across the street from the school. I had told Mary about the note, omitting the part about cocoons, and she said she would pray for him and some days after that you took off from the church steps and walked slowly, like you did before when you wanted me to catch up to you, so I did. This time I didn't feel my feet rise up off the ground, but I felt Mary's prayer pushing me forward as if to obey some plan to bring me closer to you.
But now you seemed to sense my presence behind you and you started to walk faster. I stayed farther back and pretended that I was just an ordinary person on the street. You walked quickly to your house and there on the front porch I saw, still in their bag, the clothes I had left there some months before. You went in and shut the door but you did it softly, like you really didn't mean to shut it in my presence. It was clear that some other compelling reason for your behavior was operating at that moment.
At home that evening my girls asked when Michael would come over to play again. The three of them played so well together that it seemed stupid and cruel to keep them apart. It was February and the older girl's birthday was soon. We should have a party and invite everyone from the kindergarten class. I would enlist the help of the teacher to encourage Michael's father to allow him to come. Mrs. K was kind and had taught school for thirty years; she would know what to do.
But when I asked her if she might talk to Michael's father about the party, she said that she didn't think it was a good idea for anyone to approach him: he had lashed out at another parent recently and the principal had to be called in to smooth things over. She said it was a shame about the father, but that Michael seemed to be a well-adjusted child and would surely survive his unusual upbringing. I thought, this can't be right. At the party, every child in the class came and ate cake and brought a present and ran around like a normal lunatic, but Michael wasn't there.
By the middle of summer, I had resumed going to the pier in my free time. One day I saw you there. You were sitting on a bench with your face to the sun and your eyes were closed. You had on the same pair of sweatpants and sandals as before, much the worse for wear, but you had a newer tee shirt, which seemed like a good sign. I watched you while a sentence began rehearsing itself in my mind. I'm sad that Michael doesn't come over to play anymore. I would make a lot of noise and clearing of my throat in order that you open your eyes and see me, and when I did this you looked properly astonished.
"But you stopped inviting him," you said clearly.
"I had to. You told the police that I was bothering you."
You looked perplexed. "What police?" There was a long pause.
"Do you think that I could summon the energy to talk to the police in those days? I couldn't talk to anyone."
There was another long pause.
“Did you get my note? The one about cocoons?” I asked. “I said that I could protect Michael from …” but then you interrupted me.
“No. There was no note.”
“In Michael’s pocket?” A note. I wrote you a note.” I could hear my own voice and it sounded desperate and pleading.
Michael’s father shook his head.
I sat down next to Michael's father on the bench and I noticed that he smelled slightly sour and a bit like urine, but his teeth were white and clean and his fingernails were also clean. He leaned away from me as I sat down, but not in an unfriendly way. We spoke of this and that, nothing too difficult, and at the end we agreed that Michael would come over on the first day of school, which was coming soon. We didn’t mention again the mystery of the note or of the police coming to my house, but it stayed with me like a dark shadow in an otherwise sunny day.
"The first day of first grade," I said and you smiled faintly.
After that, we saw one another on the pier fairly often and we sat together sometimes in silence, but mostly talking. Our conversation wandered… you might have said something like this: “Have you ever stopped to think why there are so many more masters than colleagues; so many more owners than there are fellow creatures; so many more strangers than friends?” After the first of these utterances I learned that you weren't asking a question, even though it might have sounded like it. Or you might have said something like this: “Have you heard how the birds chirp in a very particular way at dusk. It's clear they are sorting it out; they're deciding where they're going to sleep that night. You can hear the rustling as they all settle down in their spots. Sometimes one will rush out of his spot and you can just imagine that it didn't work out with that other bird. And off he goes like he knows where he's going, flying in a very straight line, but to where?” When I would read these sentences from my journal out loud to Mary, she would say they didn’t make sense, but I thought they did.
It was a joy to have Michael in the house again. He had grown; his biggish northern European stock resulting in a good mix of fat to flesh; a solid presence here in the world. As before, he played very well with my girls and none of them seemed to have noticed his long absence from our house. He didn't, however, play very nicely with Mary's two boys who often came over as well. One day I was cooking meatballs for spaghetti and Mary's older boy was hanging around the kitchen smelling the food. He asked if he could have a meatball, and I was surprised that he even knew what they were because Mary told me that she had never served meat, being an Adventist, of course. The meatballs did smell very good and I had to fight the desire to give one to him. It felt unnatural to deny him the opportunity to eat. Just then Michael came in and said he would like a meatball too, so I made two tiny meatballs and cooked them and then, of course, all the rest of the children came in and wanted meatballs, so I had to make several more, and then we all sat down to eat them. I had no other option. If Mary asked, I would have to lie and tell her they were veggie meatballs made of soy or some such thing, but she would certainly suspect that they were not. Also, Mary was a kind of saint; she radiated goodness and purity and I feared the absoluteness of those things. She would know that I was lying to her if I told her a lie, and if I told her the truth she would be righteously angry.
When we finished eating, Michael said he knew that the other two boys should not have eaten meat so I had to choose right then and there between Mary and Michael, so, of course, I had to start lying and I said they were not meat, but fake meat. Then the boys argued. I didn't have time to wonder how Michael knew this about meat and Adventists and all that because the argument began to get heated and was turning into a hitting argument, and it was only much later that I had a moment to ponder everything that had happened.
When next I saw Michael's father, I told him about the incident. He stiffened when I got to the part about Michael arguing with Mary's son, and I wondered if maybe you and Michael knew Mary and her family. Our town is small and it could happen. Or maybe the two of you did not eat meat as well and that you were angry with me for allowing him to have it. Later Mrs. K the kindergarten teacher told me that Michael's mother had been a Seventh Day Adventist, and she knew this because it was on the form that the mother had filled out for Michael's attendance at school. That must have been just shortly before she died. Or killed herself. So clearly Michael knew about meat-eating and all that, but I guessed that you and he did not follow the religion anymore. But it was just a guess.
I remember that the fall was very mild and seemed to go on easily without a thought for the coming winter. Almost every day we would see one another on the pier and talk. Our conversations ranged very wide; we loved to talk about the far distant past and how people were then and the far distant future and how people would be then, and this talk was something I loved about you. Nothing too odd was out of bounds, nothing too strange was too strange to consider. Time seemed not to pass when we were talking in this way, and I remember coming away from these meetings with a light and a clarity in my head.
But still, you did not come to the door when it was time for Michael's play date to be over, but rather you stayed on the sidewalk until I noticed you there and sent him out.
One day it had started to rain and you had come up onto the porch to wait. You sat in the bent willow rocking chair and were rocking with your eyes closed when I came out. Michael and I stood there watching for a long time until suddenly you held out your arms as if to invite someone to sit on your lap. I did this and you didn't seem surprised when an adult female sat on your lap instead of a small first grade boy. Then I held out my arms and Michael got into my lap and we rocked together, balancing like eggs in a swinging basket. You smelled bad. Like medicine and alcohol and body odor, so I put my nose into Michael's hair and breathed in the sweetness of youth and innocence. When I heard my girls coming towards the front door, I picked up Michael and put him on the ground and stood up myself. I was happy and wanted to tell someone, so later I told Mary and she said she had been thinking about Michael's father at that very moment. Incredible. And the next time I saw you on the pier I felt my feet lifting up off the ground, like they did before.
Christmas was coming. The second Christmas of our knowing Michael and Michael's father. I decided to make fruitcake soaked in brandy: not that bad fruitcake with nothing in it but candied fruit, but a good fruitcake, with Brazil nuts and almond extract in the batter. I made twenty-two small fruitcakes and wrapped them in foil and red ribbon and distributed them to the children in my daughter's first grade class on the last day before the Christmas holidays. To Michael I said that he should give his fruitcake to his father and tell him that I hoped he liked it and perhaps would he like to come over for coffee and eat fruitcake with us?
You did come. It was raining and cold and your sandals made wet marks on my hardwood floor, puddles really, and you had on the same exact clothes that you wore on the first day I ever saw you. They looked like they had never been washed: they hung on your body like a loose second skin. And you waited outside on the sidewalk until I noticed you, but you didn't have to wait long because I was looking out my front windows, waiting for you. Michael had on a proper raincoat and rain boots and there was some to-do about taking off the boots and the coat and hanging them on the porch and in all that to-do, you stood silently and largely, like a large quiet bear and didn't say anything.
I had invited Mary and her boys so that her goodness and serenity might help things glide in this visit, but right from the first it was sticky. Michael's father glowered at Mary and kept his distance, while she made ever more energetic efforts to engage him. She fussed over Michael and I didn't like that, because Michael was like my own boy and only I should fuss over him. But then when she suggested that she would play the piano and we should all sing Christmas songs I was very happy. We stood around in the parlor: it was chilly and Michael stood near me, with his leg pressed against my own. I was concentrating on singing and didn't notice that Michael's father stood very near me too. Suddenly he began singing and it was as if an angel had come down to earth to sing with us. His voice was medium-deep, very pleasing and he knew all the words even as the rest of us faltered at the second verses of the songs. It was as if the tent pole of our little gathering had suddenly become huge and strong, and that strength sent out a warmth that enveloped us closely. We sang and sang. And then we ate fruitcake and drank coffee. Well, Mary and her boys drank herbal tea since they could not have anything with caffeine, and we were like normal people having a Christmas party.
But after that I didn't see you for a long time. It was too cold to go to the pier and you were never sitting on the steps of the church on the corner of Central and Chestnut. You were never there at the door of Mrs. D's first grade classroom where I went to pick up my daughter after school and where presumably you would come to pick up Michael. Mrs. D told me that Michael walked himself home, so that explained it.
It was during this time that Michael started telling me what days he could come over after school. And then, after the play date was over and it was time to leave our house, Michael would set off towards his house on foot. Mary told me that this was unsafe and that I must either walk him home myself or insist that his father come to fetch him. Again, I wrote a note to Michael's father and told him this, and after that he would come around dusk and wait outside for me to bring his son out. You never said anything to me at these moments and I was too uncertain to insist.
One day, though, without thinking about it, I didn't tell Michael that it was time to leave when I saw his father on the sidewalk. I just left the children playing and they continued to play without a care. It got darker and darker and it was still very early spring and was starting to rain a chilly rain, but still you stood outside without saying or doing anything.
It was fully dark when Mary called me. She said that we had to do something, that Michael's father was out there, that why didn't I send Michael out like I usually did? But something in me was stubborn and still I did not send him out. When I could stand it no longer, I finally brought him out and you said, as if to reward me for my effort, that you had missed me on the pier and I said goodness it was too cold to be on the pier and you said that you would be there tomorrow, so I knew that a truce of sorts had been struck.
It was cold on the pier and your feet looked very much the worse for wear. The sandals that you had been wearing for two summers and two winters were now wide floppy straps of peeling leather and your feet were filthy. You wanted to talk about cocoons. You said that your third cocoon was ruptured when your wife died and this was the first mention of your wife that I had heard in all this time. Then you said that Mrs. K the kindergarten teacher was helping you to keep the flapping pieces of the cocoon together, and when I asked how long she had been doing this you said since the beginning. Mrs. K!
You said, as if you had memorized it: "I have been unable to take good care of my son at this time."
You looked clearly past me and told me how Mrs. K takes Michael home every day after school except for the days that he comes to my house. You said how Mrs. K didn't know that Michael went to my house; she thought that he went home to his own house, and when I expressed confusion, you explained that you thought Mrs. K might be upset to know that Michael spent time with my girls and me. I thought it more likely that you did not want Mrs. K to know about it, but I didn't say anything.
We sat for a long while in silence until you spoke.
"There she is. She's been watching us for a long time."
I looked where you indicated by a wave of your hand, but Mrs. K was not there. No one was there, just shadows.
The next day when I went to pick up my daughter from school, I asked the first-grade teacher Mrs. D if she knew anything about Michael going home with the kindergarten teacher and she said, oh yes, she calls it homework club and isn't that so very kind of her? She's developed quite a bond with the little boy, and everyone considers that the boy's progress is greatly due to her efforts.
The next day I went to the pier but you weren't there. I waited a bit and was just leaving when you showed up, but it was awkward because it was supposed to be that we just ran into one another there, in an unplanned way, not that we were meeting purposefully. I was angry with a deep quiet rage and this made me bold. I went to where you had sat down on your usual bench, facing the sun.
I began to speak but you spoke over me.
"There's nothing wrong with Mrs. K taking care of Michael," you said. I swallowed hard with the logic of this and turned away. After this, Michael didn’t often say that he could come over after school, even though I asked him repeatedly.
I didn't go to the pier all that spring because I was angry with life and the way it had steered Michael away from me, but by the last day of school I was beginning to feel better. I thought that at the school party, maybe Michael's father would be there, but he wasn't. I didn't see Mrs. K either. I think she was avoiding me because when I went to her classroom she wasn't there even though she should have been. In all this time I had not asked Michael anything about Mrs. K because I knew that it might rupture the first cocoon and I loved Michael too much to do that.
Mary didn't have any suggestion about what to do about the situation other than pray for Michael's father, so we did that. She knew that I wanted Michael to come and play with my girls, but there didn't seem to be a way to make this happen. It was summer and I didn't know of any way to get in touch with Mrs. K that didn't seem awkward and strange. She didn't live in our town and I doubted that I'd run into her by happenstance. We didn’t see Michael at all for a very long time.
Summer passed and it was still hot when the first day of school came. My younger girl was now going to be in kindergarten and both girls were flushed and moist as they sat in the stroller and we approached the classroom. Mrs. K was there to greet us. She was as kind as ever and made a big to-do over the younger sister and gave her the turtle spot on the rug, which was the most desirable place for calendar and weather time. There was no chance to talk because the children were coming in and it was the first day of school.
With no responsibilities at home I decided to go to the corner of Chestnut and Central and sit on the church steps myself. I was writing in my journal when you came and sat beside me. You looked horrible. Horribly thin. Your clothes hung on you and your face was red and peeling with a deep, dirty tan underneath. You sat next to me with no pretense of just meeting there by chance. You told me that during the summer some police had come to your house and presented you with a restraining order. You were to maintain a distance of two hundred yards from the elementary school. And with them came a man and a woman from Child Welfare and they had taken Michael away.
We spent a long time sitting there in silence. I wanted to take your hand but it was very, very dirty, though after a time I found the courage and you didn't resist.
"Did Michael protest when ...?
"No, he did not,"you answered. The hurt in your eyes was beyond belief.
"But he's just a child. He doesn't know who the bad guys are and who the good guys are," I said.
"I think I am a bad guy," you said.
Mary told me that my first job was to help Michael's father.
"But what about Michael, Michael, Michael?" I heard a voice screaming in my head.
"Michael will be ok," Mary said, as if reading my thoughts. "If his father is innocent then…”
“Innocent? Innocent of what?” I asked her urgently.
“Whatever he did to lose custody of Michael,” she answered very sensibly. “If he’s innocent then everything will be sorted out and this will be just a short, unimportant memory in the boy’s life. And if his father is guilty, well, then it will be sorted out in a different way. But in any case, Michael will survive. He has people to take care of him".
"You mean Mrs. K?"
"And you," she responded.
"But he's not with Mrs. K now!" I said. "And he's not with me. Child Welfare came for him. He's with God knows who...."
"God knows who, exactly." Mary took my two hands in her own and started to pray out loud. She prayed for Michael's father, that he find the help he needs to solve this situation. She prayed for Michael too, and for me, and for her and for my girls and her two boys, and even for Mrs. K, which I thought was really going quite far afield.
But how could I help Michael’s father? I could go to his house, but I was afraid to do that. He might not let me in, and that would break my heart. I could look for him on the pier or the church steps, but there was no guarantee that I would ever find him in either of those places. It seemed like the only thing left for me to do was speak to Mrs. K and ask if she knew anything.
Before I had a chance to do this, however, I saw you. You were traveling at great speed down the sidewalk near my house. You didn’t seem to remember or care perhaps, that you were passing by, very close by, my house. You had your face fixed toward some goal and the afternoon sun shone behind you like a kind of nimbus, outlining your urgent purpose. You would have seen me if you had just turned your head, but you did not.
I thought I should not interrupt you but before I knew it, I had called out your name. You saw me and your surprise brought you up short. You hurried over, seeming to forget about your objective. You held out your hands and I felt your thin wrists and your forearms were clammy and trembling. Your breath came fast.
“Wouldn’t you come in for bit,” I said, but not as a question and we went inside. When they saw you, my girls immediately chorused about where was Michael, and you began to weep. To get over this hump I made tea and put out milk and sugar and spoons and so forth and by the time it was ready you were a bit calmer.
“I was on my way to see a lawyer,” you said, and I asked his name but you said you didn’t remember nor did you quite remember where the office was located. And in any case, where you were headed, there were no lawyers’ offices or businesses of any kind; in that direction was only the cannery and the sagging chain link fence around an empty parking lot.
“You must tell me about being a bad guy,” I said without preamble.
You needed no prompting. You told me about how you couldn’t take care of your wife when she was so sick, how you couldn’t stay in her hospital room or give her any words of encouragement, or tell her that you loved her. You said that you thought you had killed her, no, that you knew you had killed her because she was going to die anyway and you said how Mary had told you that God willed it, when you knew very well that you, yourself had willed it.
At this point I stopped you. You were crying again. I made more tea and we drank it while the girls moved about the house, playing in the different rooms. You cried and you drank tea and you cried some more and it was as if the tea and the tears were one and the same, just a flowing river of hot liquid going through a body. All this time I was trembling inside from rage, disbelief and fear. Why had Mary never told me that you two knew one another separately from my connection to you both? How was it that she knew of your wife’s sickness when no one else did? Most people thought your wife had committed suicide. I wanted to ask you all this but it was too much, too complicated.
I spent a long moment formulating a question: “Was Mary there when your wife died, or was it later that she told you about God willing it?” hoping that it was the latter.
“She was there. She was sent by the church, by some people at the church,” you said. You explained to me that ever since then, you had not been able to look at Mary without feeling all over again what had happened in the hospital room when your wife was dying.
“Where is Michael now?” I finally asked you. “What did the people from Child Welfare tell you?” You said some rambling things that didn’t quite make sense or answer my questions, but you thought Mrs. K might have an idea.
“And why do you have to stay away from the school?” I couldn’t fathom a reason why this could be, even as I remembered what Mrs. K had said about you lashing out at another parent.
“Mrs. K told the principal that I threatened some parents. But I didn’t.” You hung your head, literally hung it down low, and you reminded me of how I first saw you on the church steps, like a repentant Rodin Thinker.
I knew about the principal of the school. I had seen her there. She was an enormously fat and serious woman who was always angry, like she blamed the world for her being fat, and it occurred to me that two things were equally possible: 1. that Mrs. K and the principal were right, and that you had indeed had an altercation with another parent; or 2. that Mrs. K and the principal were wrong and that you had never done that. But if you had never done that, why would Mrs. K and the principal say that you had? I thought back to the policeman who came to my house to tell me to stay away from you and Michael, and how you said you had never asked the police to do that. It seemed more and more imperative that I talk to Mrs. K.
But Mary advised against it. She said that it would only complicate things and it was not really any of my business, which contradicted what she had said earlier.
“How can I help Michael’s father if I don’t know the truth?” I asked her.
“By just being available to him, like you were the day he spent crying at your house,” she answered one evening when I went across the street to see her. “Besides, I already have spoken to Mrs. K and she has assured me that Michael is fine. In fact, she is going to foster…”
“She is going to foster Michael??” I interrupted. “That’s not right!”
“Why not? They know her at the Child Welfare office because she has fostered other kids. Besides, Michael’s father has gone. Left.”
I felt spun around in confusion. I hadn’t seen Michael’s father since our meeting at my house some weeks earlier and I didn’t know any of this.
I didn’t believe it. I thought again, this can’t be right. But when I went to the Child Welfare office they told me it was true. Michael’s father was gone. He had abandoned any effort to reclaim his son. Or maybe something else had happened to him. He had left an address in a town in Oregon, but the police had investigated and it turned out that there was no such address. No one knew anything about any other members of their family or had any other kind of information. So, given the lack of other options, it made sense that Michael would go to Mrs. K’s, and I had to accept this even as I fought a terrible struggle inside myself. I wanted to insist to Mrs. K that Michael come to my house while this got sorted out, but I had no grounds. Or at least Mary told me I had no grounds. I felt that I did, though.
Dark thoughts came to me during the days after this. I imagined that Mrs. K and the principal of the school were manipulators; that they had fabricated the idea that you had had problems with other parents; that they made up lies about you in order that your son fall into their hands; that they may have had something to do with your disappearance. And Mary was in on it too. But of course Mary was not in on anything; she was far too good to do anything like that, and without realizing it, I transferred all my anxiety and fear onto Mrs. K.
It was with a quiet, sick rage that I went to the elementary school to look for her, ready to launch into full attack, but Mrs. K wasn’t there. Her classroom was full of kids from the next grade up: it was now a combined kindergarten and first grade and there were two teachers there that I didn’t know. They told me after class that Mrs. K was on a leave for the rest of the school year; that she was filling in for an absent teacher at a school near her house, off the island, and that she would not be coming back.
“And Michael?” I asked, sick at heart. The two teachers didn’t know, being new to the school and so I went to the principal.
“He’s with Mrs. K, of course. He’s attending the same school where she is teaching,” she told me, and, of course, I should have known or imagined that.
Not long after that there was a letter for me with no return address. It was from Michael’s father but the penmanship was so bad that I couldn’t understand much of what he wrote. But when I read the letter a second time, I began to see what he was saying: he was in Oregon, just as they had told me at the Child Welfare office. He was in Eugene, which reminded him a lot of our town, which brought him memories of me and of our times together. He said I was the only person who really knew him at all, and that’s why he was going to ask me to help him. He was very afraid because he thought that he might lose custody of Michael. He said that they had found out about some very bad thing that had occurred, but he didn’t say who “they” were. I thought about the Adventists or perhaps Mrs. K and the principal at the school, or the people at the Child Welfare office, and I wondered how Michael’s father could make so many enemies so quickly in our small town.
Then he said that he wanted me to bring Michael to him; to pick him up from school and take him to my house, as if it were a normal play date, and then drive to Oregon. Michael’s father obviously didn’t know that his son was attending a new school, and maybe he didn’t even know that Mrs. K was taking care of him. In any case, driving to Oregon was an enormous task; a thing that could not be done in one day, or in two days, but would take many days. It would require deception and daring and arrangements and planning. I couldn’t do it alone. I would have to ask Mary for help.
I proposed to Mary that we go together to Oregon, her and her boys and me and my girls, plus Michael. We could take my station wagon and fold down the back seat. Five children could sleep pretty well there, if a bit snug, and we could drive day and night and we would be there in only –.
At this point Mary stopped me to say that first, before any decisions or further discussion, we should pray. We should pray for guidance in this difficult situation. It was mostly a silent prayer as we wandered each by ourselves through the thicket, but when I went to sleep that night I knew that Mary was going to say no. So I had to make a plan on my own. I would go to Mrs. K’s school and ask to have Michael over for a play date. I wouldn’t ask about anything else. I wouldn’t try to find out anything. I would just suggest a play date. Then we would go. But I had to wait until I got a second letter from Michael’s father before doing this, because as Mary said, I couldn’t simply go to Eugene and ask at the corner store if anyone knew a crazy man who wore the same clothes every day, even though I thought I probably could do just that and it would probably work just fine.
In any case, there was not a second letter. I waited for a month. That seemed like a good amount of time, but still I heard nothing. Mary asked me every day whether a letter came; she made it a point to come over in order to discuss it, and she eventually started saying that it was not a good idea to take Michael to Oregon; that it went against what the people in Child Welfare had decided; that there was probably a very good reason why Michael had been taken away; that he was in good hands with Mrs. K. “But his father is asking for him!” I told her. But nothing moved her. As the days went by she became more and more convinced that we should let things remain as they were. Finally I decided that I had waited long enough. I would have to do this all on my own.
With my girls in tow, I went to see Mrs. K. She was very gracious and said of course Michael could come over and that she would bring him over after school and come pick him up before dinner, but I suggested to her that Michael stay for dinner and three voices called out together “meatballs!” so it was decided.
The car was ready. I let the children play inside the car while I finished getting the last things together and then we went in and had an early dinner. It was nearly dark when we got back into the car, but I couldn’t pull out of the driveway because Mrs. K’s and Mary’s cars were blocking the way. I hadn’t even seen them earlier being so focused on what I was doing. Time seemed to stop at that moment. No one moved or said anything; even the children were mute.
Then Mary came up to the window and indicated that I should roll it down. She looked sad. She began to speak, but Mrs. K interrupted her, asking me where I was going. Mary looked hard at me and rephrased the question: was I on my way to return Michael to Mrs. K’s house? I had to lie – and it’s true that there are times when lying is not a bad thing – and I said yes, that’s what I was doing.
“Well then, I’m here” said Mrs. K, “and I can take Michael so you don’t need to.”
Michael got out of my car and into Mrs. K’s, and when they had left Mary helped me unload all the stuff and bring it into the house.
I didn’t see Mary for a long time after that. She didn’t call or come over and I was too afraid to visit her either. But then one day as I was returning from an errand, I found her on my front porch, just about to ring the doorbell. She turned and looked confused, and it seemed that I had interrupted a plan and caught her off guard.
She asked if she could come in because she had something important to tell me, but then she couldn’t do it, and instead asked if she could play the piano. When she played Love is Come Again Like Wheat Arising Green, one of my favorite songs, I thought that maybe she was forgiving me for all that had happened. I asked her to play it again, and as if reading my thoughts, she played it again, and again, and again until at last I got up from where I was lying on the couch and stood next to her at the piano and we sang it together and Mary sang a beautiful harmony and in that way everything was cleansed.
Then she said she had something to tell me, a story. It had to do with Michael’s father. She said that when I had heard the story I would understand everything about Michael’s father that I needed to understand.
When Mary had gone to the hospital that day, the day that his wife died, she had seen something terrible. As she approached the doorway of the room, she saw that Michael’s father had laid a pillow over the face of his wife and that he was lying there himself, his own head pressed down on the pillow, covering her face completely. Mary had stared at the scene for a long time, as Michael’s mother’s body remained absolutely still. When Mary had gathered her wits and entered the room, Michael had said out loud to her that his mother had just died.
“Michael was there?” I asked, but already knowing. Michael had seen his mother die and still his first cocoon had not ruptured.
Mary continued, telling me that it had been a long agonizing struggle for the wife: first, for her to live and then, for her to die. She had been for several weeks in the ICU, on a ventilator because she couldn’t breathe. Her kidneys were failing and she had sepsis, an infection in her blood and she was very near death.
“But it was still murder,” said Mary.
“Did you see him put the pillow there?” I asked. Mary looked disbelievingly at me. “It was clear what had happened,” she answered.
Suddenly the effects of the singing disappeared. I remembered that Michael’s father had told me – that day he spent crying in my kitchen – that he had willed his wife to die, but I understood that to be something different from killing her. The only person who would know the truth was Michael, but he was only five years old when his mother died. How could he know what, exactly, he saw in the events of that day?
“What did you do then, Mary?” I asked her and my voice trembled.
“I prayed,” she answered.
“And what did you pray? What did you pray for?” I remember clearly saying.
Mary didn’t answer but instead went to the piano and started to play.
In the days that followed I had to fight the urge to go somewhere and wreak some damage: to Mary’s house, to shout at her, to accuse her of having something to do with Michael’s father abandoning his son and of leaving town. I wanted to hear my voice loud and angry, and to hear her response only to hear my own voice shout her down once again. Or to Mrs. K’s, since I knew she had played a part in everything that had happened. I would question her and make her answer me with the truth. Or I even imagined going to the house of the fat principal, where I would insult her in her fatness and her falsity. I thought often of Michael’s father in his dirty craziness, and I wondered what he must be feeling. And I thought of Mary and Mrs. K, living in their clean, pretty houses, calmly going about their business, and how, to look at me you would say that I am just like them, but inside I am not calm, and even though I am going about my business, it is done with a boiling rage inside.
And where was the truth here? Michael’s father was crazy with grief and anguish and no one seemed to care about that. He told me himself that he was a bad man, but even so, it must have been a terrible fear to cause him to leave behind everything that was his. He may have believed that he truly killed his wife and now he thinks Mary and Mrs. K will keep Michael from him unless he stays clear away. But none of this can be right, I thought once again.
I tried to envision him taking the pillow and laying it over his wife’s face, and then putting his own head down on the pillow, as if to take a rest or as if to go to sleep right there in the hospital room. I recalled that Mary had said it was not his own will, but God’s will. Words, words: where was the truth? Mary had called it murder, but perhaps it was something else altogether?
I thought about Michael’s words to Mary when she came into the room: my mother has just died, which is how Mary herself expressed it to me. But how did Michael know this? As far as Michael knew, his mother was very sick in the hospital, but to affirm out loud “my mother has just died” implied a knowingness far beyond the reach of a five-year-old. His father must have told him this. His father must have said the words exactly in the moments before Mary entered the room. But as hard as I tried to imagine this, I could not. It did not cohere with anything that I knew about Michael’s father – about his manner, his way of speaking, his way of thinking.
Then my mind concocted another scenario: it was not a mercy killing but rather a vision. It was a vision experienced by Mary. It was like when she would go white while praying. She could have had a vision of a man lying with his head on a pillow over the inert form of a woman, even if the reality were different. Mary said that she waited at the doorway to the hospital room. Why did she wait? Was she perhaps paralyzed by the vision? Again, I thought that the only truth that existed in that moment would reside in the memory of Michael.
In any case, Michael’s mother died. And even though Mary believed that it was murder, she had not acted on that belief. Clearly she did not go to the police. Otherwise Michael’s father would have been arrested and everyone in town would have known about it. I thought to myself, not for the first time, this also cannot be right.
It was very cold the day I called Mary to ask her to come over. I told her I needed her to pray for me because I was very troubled. At the door she said firmly: I’ve come to pray for you. She looked surprised when I said that I wanted to lead the prayer; that I wanted to do the speaking, not her. She peered into my face and asked since I was so troubled it would be better, perhaps, if she did it.
“I am troubled, Mary,” I told her. “I’m troubled about Michael. And about his father.”
Mary’s face turned very flat and pale and she seemed to give a step back even without moving.
“I’ve told you about Michael’s father before, but you didn’t listen,” she said finally.
“That doesn’t matter now,” I told her. “I want to lead the prayer. I feel called to do it.”
There was nothing more she could do. We sat down in adjoining chairs in the parlor, near the alcove where the piano stood, and I felt Mary’s warm hand covering my own.
I began by saying all the same things that Mary always said when we prayed: that we were clearing our heads and our hearts in order to hear him, that we call out for guidance and strength to follow his path, that we ask to be steered away from weakness and to remind ourselves to strive always for the perfection of character that Jesus attained in the human flesh of this world.
After I said this, I felt a great stillness enter the room and I let the heavy stillness hover over us for a long moment. It shimmered and pressed down and I could almost see it as a shininess that came over everything my eyes saw inside my closed lids.
“I want to pray especially for Michael’s father now,” I said loudly, in order to penetrate the brightness. I felt Mary’s warm hand hold my own very closely, and it was if she were trying to keep me tethered to the chair.
“I want to ask that you cover Michael’s father with truth and rightness, and that you let the shining light of your wisdom penetrate the darkness of all these misunderstandings, all these…”
At this, Mary interrupted me. “There are some things in this world that we can never know,” she said. “Or to understand. God has his ways and his ways are not always our ways, and you have to accept that.”
“But Mary, you say you know something for certain. You said you saw Michael’s father suffocate his sick wife. You saw a terrible sin take place and you didn’t do anything about it,”, I said. “You saw Michael’s father do a terrible deed and…”
At this Mary looked worried and pained.
I didn’t say anything, waiting on pins and needles for Mary to finally tell me the truth.
“I thought that if you became wary of Michael’s father; if you thought that he was a bad person, that you might stop thinking about him so much.”
I let Mary’s words hang in the shiny air.
“I saw how much time you spent with him. And it’s not right. Not right at all.”
Mary sighed and looked away.
“Michael’s father is not healthy for you,” she said, and then she brought my hand to her face and kissed it. She had wet eyes. “It’s better for everyone if he stays in Oregon. It’s better for Michael…”
“No! It is not better for Michael!” It is not better for me!” I yelled the words, but she did not let go of my hand.
“Did you lie to me, Mary?” I asked her. She seemed to close up and her eyes took on a hooded look.
She didn’t speak for a long time until finally she said: “Didn’t you tell me that Michael’s father admitted to you that he killed his wife?” she asked. “Didn’t you say that he thought of himself as a bad person, that he had done a bad thing? And he told you so?”
There passed some minutes in which neither of us spoke. Mary let go of my hand and went to stand by the window where the cold, sharp sunlight was coming in and she looked out into the street with her chin up, looking as if she had a million vague thoughts skimming past in her mind.
Finally I asked her a question that had taken a long time to form itself in my head.
“How did you know that Michael’s father told me that he was a bad man? Or that he had done a bad thing? I never mentioned that to you, Mary.”
She didn’t answer my question with words, but she answered it with her silence.
After this, our lives, my life and Mary’s life, separated like thread coming off the spool, and we did not say more than “hello” to one another for some time. I did not see Michael again because our paths never crossed, nor did I see Mrs. K. We did see the principal of the school, and somehow she was each year a little fatter and more angry-looking, and I did my best to avoid her.
After a while, I forgave Mary for her lies to me, because I knew very well that it is not always a bad thing to tell a lie. We resumed our friendship and I grew very fond of her warm hand on mine whenever we would pray together. When my girls were in school all day long, I got a job that kept me quite busy. Things were going along fairly nicely for a long time.
Then, suddenly, the cocoon ruptured.
It was the graduation of my older girl and of Mary’s older boy, and the ceremony was being held at the big high school off the island, since our little school couldn’t properly host an event of that sort. I thought I might see Michael there and I did. He crossed the podium and I said excitedly to my younger girl: “It’s Michael! It’s Michael, from when you were little! Do you remember?” and she waved to him and he waved back, smiling.
I had time during the ceremony to write a short letter to Michael’s father, and I thought to find Michael afterwards and ask if he might pass it on to him. I hoped, somehow, that they were in contact still.
When all the speeches and the diploma-granting were over, my girls ran off to see their friends, and I wandered the corridors of the big school, hoping to run into Michael. From around a corner I heard a voice I recognized: it sounded like Michael’s father and I hurried towards it. But it was not him, it was Michael, surrounded by a group of his friends. My heart skipped a beat and I felt like I was floating, a little bit. Michael had fulfilled every promise of his youth. He was clear-eyed and well-spoken; laughing and smiling without any effort at all. Nothing really bad had ever gotten to him. I waited outside the group until they dispersed and he turned to me. He approached and gave me a warm hug.
“I remember you from when I was little,” he said. “You always let us run around barefoot and we ate meatballs at your house.” We laughed. “I remember that too,” I said. He thanked me for that and we spoke for a bit. He told me that he was going off to college pretty soon; he had signed up for summer classes ahead of the normal freshman year, so he needed to go off to school early. He only had another week in town. I felt very, very happy for him, and reached into my purse for the letter.
“Michael, I was wondering if you might give this letter to your father when you see him next?”
“Well, you can give it to him yourself. He should be around here somewhere”. And so it was that I saw Michael’s father coming towards us. His clothes were very old and worn, but I recognized the shoes from the bag of clothing that I had left on his front porch those many years ago.
“Pops, I’m going to the back gate. Mrs. K will be waiting there,” said Michael and saying goodbye to me he walked away.
We didn’t at first know what to say to one another. “I have a letter for you,” I said finally and he took it.
“Do you still go to the pier?” he asked and I understood what that meant. “Yes,” I answered and I knew that I would see him there soon.
“You know, I left a lot of things unexplained, and I was wondering if I would ever have the chance to clear them up,” he said, looking straight into my eyes.
“You mean about Mary, and about moving to Oregon and…?”
“Oregon?” he asked, with true wonder. “What do you mean, Oregon?”
“Yes, I got your letter to me! I tried to do what you asked, but I couldn’t,” I said, and I remember that my whole body was trembling inside.
“I never moved to Oregon,” you told me. “I live down the street from Mrs. K. I’ve lived there for a long time.”
“But…?” I had no words to ask what was in my mind, because my mind was a jumble. Later I would remember the envelope with no return address. I would remember throwing it away and now, never knowing if it had an Oregon postmark. Or if it didn’t.
“As for Mary, well. Mary did me an enormous favor. Back then. When my wife was dying,” he said. “Only I couldn’t understand it.”
“What favor?” I asked.
Michael’s father looked unhappy, ill at ease. “She, she, she helped my wife to pass.”
“She put the pillow…..!” I blurted out without knowing I was going to say that. “Not you….”
“None of that matters now except that I knew that you were confused. I hope we have a chance to talk again, and…” Michael’s father left off.
He had said it didn’t matter now, but it did. Because for so many years Michael’s father and I did not see one another and that was not something I wanted to happen. And for so many years I did not see Michael and that was not something I wanted to happen. And for so many years Mrs. K had him all to herself and that was something that was not right.
In any case I could not hold any of this against Mary. Besides, recently she has taken to saying how much she likes me these days. She says I am less odd.
But there are many things that Mary doesn’t know.