Authors: Richard Russo
“I know the words,” the man said, then started up again.
Another slap. “Stop! You don’t know—”
“Here’s one thing I
know,” the man said. “You hit me one more time and I’m going to knock you right on your ass.”
“You wouldn’t hit a lady.”
“I don’t know why you’d think that,” the man replied. “I really do not.”
A pause. “It’s gone.”
Some scuffling, and then the woman’s voice, rich with disappointment. “It’s all gone,” she said.
“The fuck did I just tell you?”
Then the sound of glass breaking somewhere on the rocks below.
“You don’t know the words,” the woman repeated.
“Jesus. This again.”
“It goes like this,” she said, clearing her throat. She sang in a surprisingly pretty voice: “Then I kiss…your lips…and caress your waiting fingertips…and your heart—”
“And I kiss…your tits,” the man warbled, “and caress your nipples with my lips—”
“No! No! No!” the woman objected, and there was another slapping sound. Two, actually, because she’d no sooner slapped him than he must have slapped her back, hard, I could tell, and then there was just the sound of her weeping.
“What’d I tell you?” the man said.
“You hurt me.”
“Didn’t I warn you not to hit me again?”
“That was just playing.”
The woman snuffed her nose. “You play too rough.”
“You want nice, go back to that fat stupid fuck you’re married to.”
Kissing sounds now. They had to be standing right next to the trunk. “I don’t want him. I want you,” the woman said. “And I want you to be nice.”
“People in hell want ice water.”
Now more petulant sobbing. “I
in hell. My whole life is hell. I don’t want to
in hell anymore.”
“People in hell want ice water.”
“Stop saying that! Stop being mean.” More kissing. “Why does everybody have to be so mean?”
“People in hell—”
“Stop! I swear, if you say it again—”
Then the sound of a zipper and much fumbling. “I can’t see you.” The woman giggled.
“So what? You forget what I look like?”
“I want to look at you. Don’t you want to look at me?”
“You’re so mean.”
Clothes were then tossed onto the trunk.
“Come here,” the man repeated.
come here,” the woman said, then immediately she yelped. “That’s my hair, you son of a bitch. Don’t yank my hair.”
“Then do as you’re told. Lie down on the blanket.”
“You don’t boss me. You’re not my husband.”
“Thank God for small favors.”
“I shouldn’t even let you fuck me, you bastard.”
“Too late,” the man said, and I heard the woman draw in her breath, then for a while there were just grunting, animal sounds. After that came a quiet so deep I wondered if they could hear me breathing.
“Why does everything have to be so horrible?” the woman finally said. When the man didn’t respond, she added, “I hate him.”
“He’s not such a bad egg,” the man offered.
“You’re not married to him.”
“Try not being such a cunt every minute of the day and night. Maybe he’ll be nicer to you.”
“You men always stick together.”
I heard her rise, come back over to the trunk again and start getting dressed. Over in the direction of the man, there was the sound of a cap screwing off a bottle.
“I thought you said it was all gone,” the woman said.
“It was. This is a new one.”
She sat down on the trunk hard. “You should’ve taken me to a motel. What kind of man takes a lady to a place like this?”
Apparently the man didn’t feel it necessary to answer this particular question, and in the silence that ensued I must have made a small noise, because suddenly the lid of the trunk was thrown open and the woman was looking in at me. Backlit, her face was little more than shadow, but even in the poor light I could see her darkly nippled breasts. She’d managed to pull her skirt on, though she was bare from the waist up. It took a moment for me to fully register with her.
Finally she looked back over her shoulder at the man and pointed down at me.
“There’s a little boy in this trunk,” she said.
“Right,” the man said. “Tell me another one.”
“A little boy,” she said again, as if surprised that what she’d said before turned out to be true. She reached in and touched my cheek. “A real little boy.”
“You’re drunk,” the man informed her.
While I watched, she put her brassiere on and buttoned her blouse over it. Then she leaned down into the trunk, so close that I could smell her breath and body. “He’s mean,” she confided, then lowered the lid of the trunk, surprising me almost as much as she had when she opened it.
“Where’s my purse?”
“The hell should I know?” I could hear the man pulling on his pants and zipping his fly.
A moan now. “It fell,” she blubbered.
Down between the ties was what she meant.
“Get it for me?”
“That’s hilarious,” the man said.
“I hate you,” she said. “I hate you worse than my husband.”
“Getting laid doesn’t improve your disposition much, does it.”
The voices were receding now. After a pause I heard the woman say, “There was too a little boy in that trunk.” And then I didn’t hear anything more.
HAVE SCANT MEMORY
of the journey home. My vague conviction that I now lived in some kind of dream was borne out by the nightscape. The Cayoga, which had run clear that afternoon, was scarlet now, which meant the night shift at the tannery upstream had introduced a new dye batch. The moon, nearly full, had risen, and it made the churning water look like blood, and twice, despite my care, I lost my footing on the rocks and splashed into the stream. I’d imagined we’d come a very long way—maybe a mile—from the footbridge, but in no time there were lights high up on both sides of the embankment, and rounding a bend, I identified the largest of the dark, looming shapes as the back of our own apartment house, clifflike, with my own lighted bedroom window impossibly high up its black summit. Many a night, awakened by the wind or the branches of the tall elms scratching the back wall of the building, I’d gotten out of bed and gone to that same window and peered down into the moonlit ravine, idly wondering what it would be like to be out in that ghostly landscape instead of safe inside.
When I caught sight of the footbridge, I immediately recognized the dark figure standing motionless upon it as my father. I was trying to find my voice to call out to him when he was gone again, the moon having slipped behind a cloud. Had I just imagined him there? Unsure now, I didn’t call to him, but continued along the stream until I arrived at where he was staring sightlessly at the water running beneath the bridge, and I think he must have heard my step before he saw me. “Is that you, Louie?” he said, as if he didn’t trust the evidence of his own senses, and then I was in his arms, breathing him in. Feeling his big body quake with sobs, I began to cry again myself. How long we stood like that, shaking in each other’s arms, I don’t know, but his big embrace forced my detached dream-reality to retreat and allowed the necessary space for the old, normal world to return.
Berman Court was full of police cars and our neighbors were all out on their porches when my father and I emerged from the trees behind our building. My mother was talking to a policeman, and he first noticed our approach. “I found him, Tessa,” my father called, his voice sounding strangely formal. “Our Louie’s safe and sound. He’s right here with me.”
The horror on my mother’s face when she looked up, though, caused me for a brief moment to imagine, as you sometimes do in a nightmare, that my mother didn’t love me, that she had not wanted me to be found. It only lasted a second, of course—that look of horrified revulsion at the sight of me, a boy dyed vividly red. To her I must’ve been the embodiment of the fears that had grown worse and worse since my failure to return home from school that afternoon. But then her rationality returned, and she came toward us, her eyes streaming, as our neighbors began to clap and cheer on their sloping porches, glad to have been wrong, because of course they, too, had concluded I would never again be seen alive.
Even now, over fifty years later, I feel profoundly the miraculousness of these events, though explanation renders them mundane. In that trunk I experienced the first of the “spells” that have ever since haunted my life. The symptoms are familiar now—the sleepy exhaustion, the sense of detachment from reality, the feeling of having been “away,” the odd, unaccountable, overwhelming sense of well-being that accompanies me on my return—but at the time all that was new. I had awakened not with a sense of having been victimized but ironically of having been given an invaluable gift. In captivity I had imagined a terrifying world, only to learn that I was safe in it after all, and that I had the power to vanish my tormentors. Having disposed of them, I had only to find my way home and into my father’s embrace.
Though the police cars seemed staged for my dramatic return, I later learned that their presence had nothing to do with me. Rather, a fight had broken out at Murdick’s, a nearby gin mill, and one of the combatants, who lived in Berman Court, had been arrested when attempting to sneak home and avoid arrest. My mother, hearing the commotion outside and imagining I’d been found, had rushed downstairs, only to be disappointed. She’d spent most of the afternoon and evening riding around the West End in a police cruiser, looking in vain for any sign of me. And while I looked like the survivor of a bloody adventure, in reality it gradually became clear that nothing awful had happened. Walking home along the stream, I’d realized what I’d been too frightened to grasp before, that the public school boys hadn’t meant me any actual harm. After the man and woman had left and I’d finally climbed out of the trunk, the truth was obvious. What the boys had been sawing wasn’t the trunk but one of the sloping rafters, from which the saw still dangled. Its significance came to me in stages too minute to measure, and only when I awoke in my bed the next morning did I understand what really happened and why it was that the louder I’d screamed in terror, the harder they’d laughed. Later, I learned that my tormentors had gotten a scare of their own when, opening the trunk, they couldn’t arouse me from my catatonic state. Believing they’d scared me to death, they immediately fled the scene. Only after spending a sleepless night did two of the boys break down and confess what had happened. So in the end I’d been the victim of little more than a cruel prank transacted less than a quarter mile from Berman Court.
The only truly miraculous thing that night was my father’s presence on the footbridge at two in the morning, where he’d been awaiting my return since dark and infuriating my mother, who viewed his stolid vigil as a mockery of reason. A West End boy roughly my age had disappeared the previous spring, abducted, many believed, by a stranger in a dark sedan rumored to be lurking in the neighborhood still. That I might have suffered a similar fate was now being whispered by neighbors and police alike. Why, my mother wanted to know, did my father insist on standing guard over the stream behind our house? Did he think we were living in a fairy tale and I’d just materialize there if he waited long enough?
Strangely, that was precisely what he seemed to be doing there on the footbridge as he stared down into the red, churning water—wishing me home and rescuing me from the trunk, from that parallel life I’d begun to imagine so vividly, by the sheer force of his will. When he called “I found him, Tessa,” to my mind that pretty much summed up the situation. He’d found me. With my small hand safely locked in his big one, I
found. “Our Louie’s safe and sound,” he told her, and me, and himself, thus making it true.
MAY HAVE BEEN
safe, but for some months after my ordeal I was not, to most observers, sound. Sister Bernadette noted that I was easily diverted from her lessons, staring out the window at nothing. “He just goes off someplace,” the young nun explained. “I don’t think even he knows where.” I was equally abstracted at home. “Where were you just then?” my mother would ask, perplexed not just by my mental absence but also, at times, the expression on my face. “Can you tell me what you were thinking about?”
I could not. My mind seemed everywhere and nowhere. One afternoon, my mother came into my bedroom and found me staring out my bedroom window, the one that overlooked the stream. By then it was late November, and with the trees bare you could just make out in the distance the very top of the structure on the railroad trestle, the scene of my ordeal. I remember thinking how odd it was I’d never noticed it before. According to my mother, I was in a trance she couldn’t coax me out of. Unnerved, she was about to call the doctor when I suddenly snapped out of it and expressed surprise at finding her there in my room. She took me by the elbows, then, and regarded me so intently that I wanted to look away. “Where were you, sweetie?” she said, her now-standard inquiry. “You have to tell me. I can’t help if you keep secrets from me.”