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Authors: Joyce Carol Oates

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BOOK: Missing Mom
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Strabane glanced at me, brooding.

“Ma’am? Ms. Eaton? Anything you can add, any name…?”

My mind was blank. I could not think. I was tamping down my spiky hair, of which I’d become acutely ashamed. Like the Statue of Liberty, I must have looked. And my face dead-white, and my lips caked with an acid-vomit taste.

I didn’t remember vomiting. Anxiously I wiped at my mouth, I saw that the front of my shirt was dappled with something whitish, sour-smelling.

Clare said suddenly, “Oh. ‘Danto.’ He’s an exterminator, he came to the house a week or so ago, to exterminate red ants.”

I said, “Clare, no! ‘Sonny’ Danto would never…”

“Detective, his name is ‘
D-a-n-t-o
.’ ‘The Scourge of the Bugs’ he calls himself.” Clare was becoming fired-up, vindictive. “My mother was a lonely, vulnerable woman, a widow. She was so friendly to everyone, so trusting. I hated it how people took advantage of her!”

But Danto was a joke, wasn’t he?—just one of Mom’s many eccentric acquaintances, not to be taken seriously.

Strabane was saying, for my benefit, that “all names, any names” of persons who’d been in my mother’s house recently were urgently wanted for purposes of the investigation. “Ma’am, if there’s weeding-out to do, I will do it.”

It was taken for granted that the person or persons who’d murdered our mother had also taken her Visa card and her car, her wallet, various household items we would be asked to identify in the morning. It was taken for granted that our mother had probably walked into a burglary in progress which had resulted in her death. (Dad had had a security system installed, but after his death, since Smoky was always tripping the alarm, Mom had asked Rob to dismantle it.) In my confused state I’d known that Mom’s car was missing but I had not seemed to grasp that it had been stolen, and might be the means of finding the murder or murderers.

Rob asked Strabane if whoever had done this would be that stupid, to drive a stolen car, and Strabane said, “Yes, sir. They are all stupid.”

I could have told the detective that my mother’s car was a metallic-green Honda, a fairly new model, four-door, but Rob Chisholm knew precisely that it was a 2001 Honda Accord for he’d been the one to accompany Gwen to the dealer and help her make the purchase. I could not remember anything of my mother’s license plate number but both Clare and Rob recalled the first three digits—
SVI
—and Rob also knew the name of the garage where she took the car to be serviced: the manager could give police more information.

I saw how I was being left behind. How Mom was being left behind.

I saw how the police investigation would move swiftly and professionally, as if I did not exist. I saw how others seemed already to know much more about what had happened to my mother than I knew.

I was frightened by this realization, I think. I could not accept it. In the garishly lighted garage (so cluttered, so embarrassing, what will strangers think of us!) my mother’s small lifeless body was being examined and photographed by strangers who had not known Gwen Eaton and for whom she was but a body, a “victim.” Her designation was lurid: “murder victim.”

Soon, the “murder victim” would be removed from the garage. It was to be transported to the Mt. Ephraim Township morgue. This was a place, you could say it was an institution, to which neither Clare nor I had given the slightest thought, ever. Yet, for many others, it was a known place. It would be a known place, for us.

We would have liked to accompany our mother’s body to the morgue but we were not allowed this privilege. Nor could we approach our mother simply to touch her, in farewell.

Our mother had passed beyond us, suddenly. We could not claim her.

Strabane must have finished his questions, temporarily. For Clare was on her cell phone speaking with Lilja. In a shaky but careful voice explaining, “Something has happened to Grandma Eaton but…No, honey, your dad and I are all right…Yes, we’ll be home soon and in the meantime do me a favor honey, don’t turn on the TV? Promise?”

As soon as Clare broke off the conversation, Lilja would rush to the TV. Obviously!

Still more vehicles were arriving on our street. Radio voices squawked loudly. Seen from a distance we must have looked like a carnival. I thought
This can’t be happening
,
it was meant for someone else
.

This long day: had it really begun with ninety-nine-year-old Jimmy Friday wisecracking and flirting through his interview with me that morning, inscribing my copy of
Songs My Daddy Taught Me: The Mostly True Tales of Jimmy Friday
in an extravagant old-fashioned handwriting
TO BEAUTOUS NICOLE FROM

ONE & ONLY

JIMMY FRIDAY
!

I remembered now, I’d thought I would buy a second copy of the elderly musician’s memoir and ask him to inscribe it to Gwen Eaton, she’d been one of his admirers from long ago.

A TV crew had arrived but was not allowed past the police blockade. Hastily Rob called their home again on the cell phone, to ask Lilja please not to turn on the TV.

“Just don’t, honey. Daddy is asking you. Promise?”

Now we were being fingerprinted. I was on my feet, I’d been able to wipe my hands clean with a cloth soaked in rubbing alcohol. Detective Strabane was explaining the procedure, why it was necessary, for our fingerprints, Clare’s, Rob’s, mine, would be everywhere in my mother’s house. His hair grew in odd stiff tufts like quills, slanting forward as in a brisk wind. I had a whiff of something like motor oil. “Ma’am? May I…” Strabane took my hand in his in a diffident gesture and pressed my fingertips against a black-inked pad, then he pressed them against a sheet of stiff white paper, rolling them carefully onto the paper: each finger separately, then the four fingers together. Tears leaked from my eyes, Strabane made no comment. My fingers were icy, Strabane made no comment. We were almost the same height, but Strabane outweighed me by fifty pounds. He was stocky in the chest and shoulders, with a whistling sort of breath as if his sinus cavities were partly blocked. A fleeting thought came to me of Wally Szalla clasping my cold bare feet between his warm sprawling-big bare feet playfully shuddering
Brrr! Cold toes, cold heart!

I’d been supposed to meet my lover, the “evil” influence in my life, that evening at eight, at an inn on the Chautauqua River that was one of our places, a discreet distance from Chautauqua Falls where Wally’s family lived. I’d forgotten completely and would now forget again for my head was so empty you could hear wind whistling through its cavities, you could see scraps of litter and straw blown about.

“Now, ma’am. The other hand…”

Strange to be called
ma’am
for I certainly wasn’t the type. I was made to think that my social status had changed, as the daughter of a murdered woman.

“My name is Nikki, officer. ‘Nicole.’”

Strabane’s forehead was low, and deeply furrowed. One of those individuals who has been frowning—“making faces”—since childhood. He frowned now, repeating the ink-procedure with my left hand that was limp and unresisting. I heard myself say suddenly, “Officer, if you’d known my mother! She didn’t deserve…”

“Nobody does, Nicole. None of it.”

“…she was not a woman who, who could…”

“Ma’am, I know. Please accept my condolences.”

“But you don’t
know
. None of you, you can’t
know
.”

Clare pulled me away. Smiling hard, and digging her nails into my shoulders. Whispering in my ear, “Don’t you become hysterical, Nikki! Just hold on.”

Rob gave Strabane his telephone number but I stammered and stuttered trying to remember mine. The detective waited patiently. At the third or fourth try, I managed to remember. I was blushing deeply now, I was becoming angry.

“You are free to go home now. We’ll be contacting you in the morning.”

These were practiced words, obviously. Detective Strabane had uttered them many times before.

I was examining the card he’d given me. It seemed so trivial, a business card at such a time. Dad had had a stack of similar little cards after he’d been promoted to senior vice-president of Beechum Paper Products. It seemed like there were hundreds of these cards, winding up in drawers, fallen into the cracks of things and behind cushions.

DETECTIVE ROSS J. STRABANE

MT. EPRHRAIM POLICE DEPARTMENT

TEL
: (716)722-4186
EXT
. 31

H
OME
: (716)
81 7-9934
722-1874

Strabane was urging us to go home, get a good night’s sleep.

A good night’s sleep! The bastard.

“…this way of thinking when I was a young kid, a kind of superstition like in a primitive part of the brain, that a bad day was just for that day, a ‘bad luck’ day, and the next day had to be different. But when you grow up, you know that bad days can come one after another, there’s no connection between them. So, the exhaustion will hit you, what has happened today, that is too much for you to comprehend, you should try to sleep tonight.”

It was a touchingly mangled speech. Clare was staring at the detective in astonishment. For a moment no one spoke. Rob thanked Strabane, and said we would all try.

All this while I’d been watching the garage anxiously. I could not see my mother’s body any longer. I wasn’t sure if it had already been loaded onto an emergency vehicle backed up to the garage entrance.

I said, “I want to go with Mom. I have a right, I think.”

It was explained to me, I could not go with Mom. I did not have a right, in fact.

I said, “I’m not leaving her.” Then I said, as if there were any logical connection between the two statements, “This house is my home. It is my
home
.”

Clare tugged at my arm, annoyed. “You’re coming home with us, Nikki. Don’t be silly.”

“No. I don’t think so.”

“We need to be together. You can’t drive back to Chautauqua Falls in the state you’re in.”

A wisecrack bristled on my lips
I’m in the same fucking state you’re in, Big Sis: New York State
.

“My car. I can’t leave my car here.”

“Rob can drive your car to our house, Nikki.”

“Why are you in a ‘state to drive,’ Clare, and I’m not?”

“Nikki, the shock was worse for you. You were the one to find Mom…”

“Well, I don’t want to leave her just yet.”

I must have spoken sharply, I’d become an object of attention.

Gil Rowen, who’d known “Johnny” Eaton and “Feather” Kovach forty years before, was advising Clare that “your sister” be taken to the medical center after all: I wasn’t looking good, I’d had a “severe shock.” I turned on him with a savage grin: “You can speak directly to me, Chief Rowen. I’m not brain-damaged.”

I resisted Clare’s fingers on my arm. I resisted a herding movement of my brother-in-law, to urge me in the direction of the Chisholms’ Land Rover. I wasn’t a sick child, to be taken care of by responsible adults! I was filled with rage suddenly. I wanted to scream, bite, tear with my teeth.

At this moment there came a darting movement in the grass in front of the house, a furtive dark shape. Dad had planted two willow trees in the front yard when I’d been a little girl, these had grown to their full height, the graceful branches arcing, falling toward the ground, beginning to quicken with new spring growth. The shape darted from the base of one of these willows to the other, I saw a flash of tawny reflector-eyes. Smoky!

In the commotion my mother’s cat had run outside, terrified. I had completely forgotten him until now.

What a nightmare for a cat! The house was blazing with lights, strangers speaking in loud voices. Smoky had lost his only companion in Mom, now he’d lost his place of refuge in which he’d been safe for almost ten years. In a seductive voice I called “Smoky! Kitty-kitty!” and tried to approach him even as he retreated before me, ears laid back. Smoky was a football-shaped cat, burly rather than fat, his fur was not glistening-silky but dull gunmetal-gray, Dad had called him about the least graceful cat he’d ever seen, some strange hybrid between a cat and a small species of pig, but Mom had loved him. And he’d loved Mom, and would never be able to comprehend that she was gone.

Clare called to me, but I ignored her. She and the others were staring at my odd posture as I crept across the lawn, hand extended. They hadn’t seen Smoky, they had no idea what I was doing. Rob was calling me, too. I ignored them, pursuing Smoky who was at the corner of the house now, by the lilac hedge, poised to disappear into oblivion. The pretense was that I had something to feed Smoky, something in my hand, but Smoky was too shrewd for me, and frightened of the loud voices of strangers and the activity in the driveway. I turned to shout at these intruders: “Don’t talk so loud! Please lower your voices! You’re scaring my mother’s
cat
.”

Smoky bolted from me around the corner of the house, and disappeared. Hunched almost double as if in pain, in fact my gut was livid with pain as with molten lead, my hand still extended into the shadows, I ran after him.

Toward dawn I fell asleep. I think.

There was a promise that, whatever had happened that hurt so badly, it would be rescinded by morning.

Like
DELETE
on the computer. Click onto
DELETE
and whatever it is you want to get rid of, becomes
was
.

 

Except it wasn’t the right sleep somehow. Maybe it was someone else’s sleep, sloshing onto me by accident. A kind of gritty froth-foam slapping over my face, then withdrawing. I was lying where I’d fallen on a lumpy beach. Pebbles, cold wet sand. Too exhausted to move my head. This kind of gritty-filthy surf washing over me and for a fleeting second or so I would be sleeping and then the surf would withdraw leaving me exposed and my eyes sprang open in terror.

Mom?
Mom?

 

It was so, I’d gone home with Clare and her husband.

I hadn’t been able to find Smoky. I stumbled and fell in a neighbor’s backyard. I wasn’t crying but I was very tired. I had to concede, Clare was probably right: I wasn’t to be trusted driving a car in the state I was in.

Mental state, Clare meant.

And it wasn’t a good idea for me to be alone that night. The police chief who’d known my dad and mom insisted. No! not a good idea, Nicole! Not alone in a rented apartment in a shabby-chic brownstone in Chautauqua Falls where possibly I would be in danger.

“You’re coming with us, Nikki.
Now
.”

Clare climbed into the high cab of the Land Rover like a general climbing into his military vehicle. Clare grim-jawed and glarey-eyed like one going to war.

Rob followed behind us in the Saab. I was the lone passenger.

“Until whoever did it, the murderer or murderers, the cowardly bastards, is caught. You will be with
us
.”

 

I was not able to think clearly but I did recall the police officer with the swarthy simian face who’d assured us that after a bad day you can expect a good day, anyway a less-bad day. Some kind of superstition but maybe it was so?

 

On the way home, Clare swung around to stop at Luke Myer’s house. Dr. Myer had been our family “primary care” physician for as long as I could remember and he had not yet heard of Gwen Eaton’s death and was stunned, shaken, by what Clare had to tell him but recovered enough to provide Clare and me with something to help us sleep that night.

A quick-acting “mild” barbiturate.

Clare made it clear, she did not believe in drugs. But tonight was an emergency situation, especially where I, Nikki, her younger and more emotional sister, was concerned.

“You see, Nikki was the one to discover the—”

Clare felt the need to begin again. “Nikki was the one to find Mom. She’s taking it pretty hard as you can imagine.”

Clare’s eyes flashed like scimitars. Not with tears.

 

It would be said in Mt. Ephraim that Nikki, the younger Eaton daughter, had collapsed after discovering her mother’s body but this was not true! I had not collapsed at the time. I had not collapsed for hours. Not so that anyone could see.

As soon as I was alone upstairs in the Chisholms’ house my head seemed to come unhinged from my neck and fell heavily forward. It had been my intention to shower immediately, to tear off my blood-smeared clothes and wash my hands which bore traces of black ink, but in the bathroom I became frightened, flushing the toilet involved so much noise. I seemed to lack the strength to take a shower, I was shivering badly and unable to remove my clothes. Sweatshirt, jeans. My punk-cut hair I’d been tamping down with both hands like a monkey displaying grief.

I was too exhausted to take the sleeping pill Dr. Myer had given me. I couldn’t make the effort to run water into a plastic cup, lift the cup to my mouth. I staggered into the attractively furnished guest room that Clare was providing for me at the end of the second-floor corridor of the house, I’d never slept in my sister’s house before and was comforted by a familiar scent of our mother’s floral soap and potpourri for this room closely resembled Mom’s guest room and in fact a number of Mom’s things were here: an oyster shell afghan Mom had knitted, a macramé wall hanging, coral shell knickknacks and clay vases. I fell heavily onto the bed. Onto the oyster shell afghan. When someone knocked hesitantly at the door—“Nikki? Are you hungry?”—I burrowed more deeply into the afghan and did not answer for I could not bear facing my sister’s children with the terrible knowledge between us of what had happened to their grandmother, I could not face them just yet.

 

Nikki! Don’t leave me, honey
.

Honey, I need you. Come help me.

If you’d come earlier…Nikki!

 

Toward dawn I fell asleep. I think.

And in a dream there was the whispered promise that what had happened that hurt so badly would be rescinded in the night. What had happened that had no name would be rescinded by morning. I had not been a little girl for many years but I was willing to believe as a little girl might believe. For there was Mom wearing the clumsy oven mitts she’d bought at a church bazaar, three sizes too large for her, stooping to pull a bubbling casserole out of the oven and unaware of me watching. And there was Mom feeding her “strays”—three very hungry cats jostling for her attention, in a corner of the kitchen. And there was Mom casting a sidelong look at Clare and me who were acting silly about something
Oh really, you two! Make yourselves useful
.

For why should things be serious, couldn’t you turn them into a joke? Better to smile than to frown. Better to laugh than to cry. Deflect a remark that might wound with a quizzical lift of the eyes, an innocent/mischievous twitch of the lips. Dad was the worrier in the Eaton family. Dad was in need of “lightening”—“cheering up”—for Dad took his responsibilities seriously, supporting his family, this damned recession in western New York State that seemed never to be turning around the way politicians were always promising yet taxes remained high, taxes were steadily rising, where was it going to end!

Go give Daddy your valentines. Go on, Daddy is waiting. And give Daddy a kiss, whether he asks for a kiss or not.

Mom was sewing a quilt. Not a full-sized quilt but a baby-sized quilt, for one of my older Eaton cousins was having her first baby. The quilt was “patchwork”—squares of all different colors, designs—pale green, pale lavender, white bunnies, red cardinals, orange giraffes, sunflowers. As the needle in her fingers darted and winked Mom hummed loudly to herself.

I was jealous! I was too old for a baby quilt.

You’ve had your turn, sweetie. This is for a new baby.

 

I didn’t wake until after 10
A
.
M
. Sunshine was beating into my face. I smelled of my body and of what had happened in the garage and my brain was aching as if broken glass had gotten inside my skull. I seemed to be wearing the identical blood-stiffened sweat-smelling clothes I’d worn the day before. Sweatshirt, jeans. I’d kicked off my running shoes but hadn’t the energy to pull off my dirty socks. My underarms were caked with stale deodorant and my mouth tasted like tar. I’d been sleeping on my face, the entire right side of my face was imprinted with the whorled knit of the afghan like a bizarre tattoo.

The childish thought came to me, Is Mom still dead? Maybe something happened while I’ve been gone, to change that?

BOOK: Missing Mom
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