Authors: Joyce Carol Oates
I was so disappointed! Clare had been right, Mom’s car wasn’t in the driveway.
Though I’d known what to expect. On the drive to Mt. Ephraim I’d punched out Mom’s number repeatedly on my cell phone. And always the phone at the other end rang four times, then came the click, and the eerie computer-generated voice
This is 716 737 2695
There is no one home please leave a message at the sound of the beep
We’d insisted that Mom have a computer voice installed, after Dad died. Not use her own voice. So no one could guess that an older woman lived by herself at that number.
Not that there was crime in Mt. Ephraim: there wasn’t. People left their doors unlocked during the day, car keys in ignitions. There had probably not been a break-in or burglary in any residence in Deer Creek Acres in years. But still.
While Dad was living, Dad’s taped voice was what you’d hear when you called my parents’ number. So stiff and self-conscious, Dad had resembled a computer voice. We’d teased him about Hal in the movie
. Both Dad and Mom had been reluctant to leave messages when they called. In recent years Mom had become more practiced but initially, when voice mail was new for them, they’d hang up quickly as soon as the recording clicked on, like guilty children. I would arrive home to a series of hang-ups on my answering service and think, Oh, Dad. Mom. When I called back, I knew not to embarrass my parents by alluding to these.
So exasperating! Our parents! Why won’t they leave messages!
As soon as I turned onto Deer Creek Drive, a block from the house I could see that the driveway was empty. My heart beat hard in disappointment, dismay.
I was beginning to be worried about Mom but also: I’d wanted to prove Clare wrong, she’d been so adamant that Mom wasn’t home. We were adult women in our thirties but every exchange between us was a tug-of-war of wills, and Clare invariably won.
Strange to be returning to the house, so soon after Sunday. It seemed as if I’d just left. Unlike Clare, who lived in Mt. Ephraim, I didn’t visit home often. I tried not to feel guilty: Mom tried not to make me feel guilty. But a kind of constriction came over me when I returned, an invisible clamp across my chest.
When will you get married, Nikki. When will you settle down, have children. Without family, what is there?
Mostly this was unsaid. And yet I heard.
Waning sunlight slanted across the front of the house, which was set back from the road in a grassy lawn pocked with dandelions. There were vividly blooming lilac bushes along the driveway. The air was fragrant with lilac. My mother’s house was small but attractive, the most ordinary of suburban houses, I guess you’d say. As a family we’d never lived anywhere else except this single-story redwood-and-stucco “ranch” at 43 Deer Creek Drive. Four bedrooms, a living room and a dining room and a “family” room with sliding glass doors opening onto a rear patio. The subdivision had been built in the late 1950s and each lot was one-and-a-half acres.
Growing up, Clare and I had bicycled everywhere in Deer Creek Estates. We had classmates, friends who lived in the subdivision and we knew half the residents by name. Away at college when I’d been lonely I’d played a game: lying in bed, eyes shut tight I would see myself bicycling along the curving roads of Deer Creek Estates. There was Deer Creek Drive intersecting with Green Glade Drive; there was Cedar Point beyond Oriole, and the cul-de-sac Cedar Point Circle where larger, more expensive ranch houses and handsome white colonials had been built. There was man-made Deer Creek Lake beyond Lakeside Drive, and beyond that a stretch of woods, birches, pines, oaks, and the raised embankment of the Chautauqua & Port Oriskany railroad. Beyond that, Mt. Ephraim. My memory began to wane.
Directly across the road from our house was a near-identical ranch with a plate glass “picture” window mirroring, or mimicking, our own. For as long as I could remember, Mr. and Mrs. Higham lived there. They’d grown old, within my memory.
Mom was friendly with Gladys Higham, who was in her sixties. The women admired each other’s lawns and flower beds. Dad had been stand-offish with Mr. Higham as he’d been with most neighbors but Mom had always liked Gladys. I was sitting in my car thinking maybe Gladys knew where Mom was, Clare should have called her. And then I thought, with a childish thrill of hope, maybe Mom was at Mrs. Higham’s: that was where she was.
I had to resist the impulse to run over to Mrs. Higham’s. To avoid entering Mom’s empty house.
I’d parked in the driveway as I had hundreds of times. This was the season of my classy-looking 2002 Saab well beyond the range of a
reporter’s buying power except a friend of Wally Szalla had been the dealer. I left the keys in the ignition thinking I would be right back. I left my cell phone on the passenger’s seat thinking I would have no need for it. I would enter the house by way of the kitchen as everyone in the family did. I had a key of course. I’d never not had a key for the house at 43 Deer Creek Drive though I hadn’t lived there for almost a decade.
It was 6:05
. The sky was riddled with beautiful bruised clouds above Lake Ontario to the north and in the west the sun was partly obscured amid clouds yet still high above the horizon as if reluctant to set. I thought, again with that childish thrill of hope, It’s still day, nowhere near night.
And yet: 6:05
. And now 6:06
. My mother would not have been away from the house for so many hours. If she’d left for the mall at about 10
., rapidly I calculated she’d been gone now for almost eight hours.
Today was an ordinary Tuesday in Gwen Eaton’s life, I was certain. She’d planned no ambitious outings, there was nothing in her schedule to account for this absence. If there had been, Clare or I would have known.
Mom would have told us, she told us everything.
Oh, why was my heart beating so hard! As I walked slowly up the driveway, approaching the side door. The concrete stoop upon which Mom had placed the usual pots of geraniums: red, pink, white. At its base she’d put in purple pansies, I could smell the wet pungent earth-smell. I saw that no lights were on in the kitchen. The door was unlocked. When I pushed it open I heard the quick welcoming tinkle of the little sleigh bells overhead.
I wondered if I felt so edgy because it was unnatural to be entering Mom’s house in her absence. Now that I no longer lived here, and so much time had passed.
I never “dropped in” as Clare was always doing. My visits were premeditated. I would not have wished to make the trip home, to be disappointed by an empty house.
No one to greet me at the door with her breathless little hug: “Why, Nikki! Hi, honey.”
I imagined this. I imagined Mom at the door, after all. (The Honda was being serviced at a garage. Mom would pick it up in the morning.) This time, Mom wouldn’t be so shocked at my hair. She’d shake her head ruefully, she’d laugh.
I’d be a beauty, Mom insisted. No matter if I were bald.
“Mom? Are you home? It’s…”
Silly. I heard my silly voice.
There came Smoky, Mom’s burly gray cat, to push against my ankles and mew. The cat was behaving strangely, I thought. Smoky was a friendly cat, at least with people he knew, but he was behaving now edgily, anxiously. When I stooped to pet his head he stiffened, ducked, seemed about to run away. “Smoky, it’s me. Don’t be afraid of me.” I stroked his head, I coaxed a hesitant purr from him. I saw that his plastic food bowls were empty and the water bowl nearly depleted.
There were other things wrong in the kitchen but I couldn’t seem to see what they were. I saw, but wasn’t registering. Somehow, I kept waiting for Mom to appear. I was waiting for her footfall, her voice. “Nikki? Why honey, what a nice surprise…” I was remembering a day years ago when I’d come home from school and Mom was supposed to be home but didn’t seem to be home and I’d wandered through the house sort of looking for her and finally calling, “Mom? Are you home?” in a whiny voice but really I wasn’t thinking much about it, at the age of fourteen you don’t think much about anyone except yourself, certainly you don’t think about your mom, you don’t imagine a life for your mom in any way separate from or independent of your own, and finally happening to glance out a window in my room into the backyard I saw Mom in her garden clothes and straw hat weeding in one of her flower beds, exactly where Mom would be. And immediately I turned away and forgot whatever vague edginess I’d been feeling, not to remember for seventeen years.
Well, here was a wrong thing: one of the kitchen chairs looked as if it had skidded across the floor to collide with the refrigerator. If you knew Gwen you’d know that she would never have dragged the chair there, unless maybe she’d been mopping the linoleum floor, but she would not have left the chair there, as she would not have left soiled dishes untended to for even a short period of time.
I replaced the chair. I think I was acting unconsciously. I would not want Mom to know that the chair was out of place, that I’d seen it out of place and might have worried.
There was a strange smell here, too. My nostrils constricted, I could not identify it.
“Smoky! Poor guy.”
I poured dry cat food into a bowl for Smoky, and replenished his water bowl. Though Smoky ate hungrily, he seemed wary of me, cringing when I moved to replace the cat food box in the cupboard, freezing and glaring as if, for a split second, he hadn’t known who I was. “Smoky, come on. You know
Mom talked to Smoky constantly, she’d talked to all our cats and when we’d had parakeets she’d talked to them. It became a joke in the household how Dad would reply absentmindedly, “What, Gwen? What did you ask?”
I kept up a bright one-sided banter with Smoky, for it seemed important to soothe the nervous cat. He needed to be assured that he’d be fed, everything was normal and routine at 43 Deer Creek Drive.
Through the rear kitchen window, framed by ruffled sunflower-print curtains Mom had sewed, I saw the bird feeder which Dad had positioned to be at about eye level; it, too, seemed to be depleted of food. Small birds hovered and fluttered in the evergreens nearby, chirping as if querulously. I could see most of the backyard: Mom wasn’t visible.
I was beginning to shiver. That day had been warm, a glaze of sunshine through a mostly overcast sky, now as daylight waned a decided chill rose from the earth. I’d run out of my brownstone apartment in jeans and a sweatshirt, bare-headed. With my hair so very short, the nape of my neck felt exposed.
yesterday my co-workers were about evenly divided between those who thought my new look was “cool”—“sexy”—“fantastic, Nikki!”—and those who smiled ambiguously and offered no opinion.
When I passed by his food dish, Smoky cringed and froze in a momentary panic. I went to check the bathroom in the hall: the “guest” bathroom where Mom kept her special floral-scented soaps in a little wicker basket on the back of the toilet. There was a reassuring smell here of potpourri and soap and my face in the spotless mirror did not appear so waxy-pale and drawn as, from inside, it felt.
The dyed-maroon hair looked like a fright wig. Something to be slapped on a head at Hallowe’en. Seeing me, Wally had blinked and smiled and laughed and had to concede: Nikki Eaton was about the most unpredictable female he knew.
Of females he’d been involved with, in any case.
Beyond the guest bathroom was an alcove, a short corridor that led to the basement door and the garage door. I would check these later, I thought.
The basement door was shut. If Mom had been down in the basement, running a load of laundry, ironing, she would have left the door open.
In the dining room I saw with a shock that something was very wrong.
Chairs had been yanked away from the table. The breakfront drawers were open and spilling their contents. On the carpet was the green silverware box, looking as if it had been flung down, spilling forks, knives, spoons in a glittery jumble. I stepped on something that rolled beneath my feet: a broken candle.
It took me a moment to realize: our silver candlestick holders were missing from the dining room table and from a serving table against the wall. Only candles remained, flung down and broken.
We’d been burglarized.
My heart was beating rapidly now. The house had been broken into, ransacked. Through the doorway I saw items in the living room strewn about. I could smell an acrid odor, as of perspiration. A man’s odor.
In the family room, the television set lay on its side, on the carpet. Not a very new or a very large set, it must have been dragged from its perch on a low table, then abandoned by the thief as too cumbersome.
The door was open to Clare’s old room, now a sewing room. Here also drawers had been yanked out of a bureau and lay on the floor spilling such mundane contents as sewing supplies, napkin rings, woven place mats. My old room, now a spare room with matched floral bedspread, curtains, and chintz-covered easy chair, had been similarly ransacked.
I went into my parents’ bedroom at the end of the hall, now I was very frightened. Pulses were beating in my head, in my eyes. I saw bureau drawers pulled out here, overturned on the floor with a look of violence. Mom’s things scattered on the carpet: her inexpensive jewelry, stockings and socks and underwear, sweaters. The glamorous white ostrich feather boa…
The closet door was open, Mom’s shoes lay on the floor as if they’d been kicked about. Size-four crepe-soled shoes with laces, black ballerina flats, a single patent-leather shoe with a small heel. Clothes had been torn from hangers, flung into a heap on the floor.
Even the bed had been disturbed, the hand-sewn quilt Mom laid over her pink satin bedspread lay partway on the floor.
He’d been looking for money, I thought. But my parents kept no money in the house.
I was stepping on an old purse of my mother’s, a bulky leather handbag she hadn’t used for years. And there was a glazed straw purse decorated with cherries. And a beaded white silk purse, Mom had last used for the wedding of a cousin of mine. These were yawning open, empty.