Authors: Tom Perrotta
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
He hadn’t done anything wrong, but he remembered feeling a weird sense of shame—of personal failure—returning home so soon after he’d left, almost as if he’d flunked out or gotten expelled for disciplinary reasons. But there was comfort as well, the reassurance of returning to his family, finding them all present and accounted for, though his sister had apparently had a pretty close call. Tom asked her about Jen Sussman a couple of times, but she refused to talk, either because it was too upsetting—that was his mother’s theory—or because she was just sick of the whole subject.
“What do you want me to say?” she’d snapped at him. “She just fucking vaporized, okay?”
They hunkered down for a couple of weeks, just the four of them, watching DVDs and playing board games, anything to distract themselves from the hysterical monotony of the TV news—the obsessive repetition of the same few basic facts, the ever-rising tally of the missing, interview upon interview with traumatized eyewitnesses, who said things like
He was standing right next to me…,
I just turned around for a second…,
before their voices trailed off into embarrassed little chuckles. The coverage felt different from that of September 11th, when the networks had shown the burning towers over and over. October 14th was more amorphous, harder to pin down: There were massive highway pileups, some train wrecks, numerous small-plane and helicopter crashes—luckily, no big passenger jets went down in the United States, though several had to be landed by terrified copilots, and one by a flight attendant who’d become a folk hero for a little while, one bright spot in a sea of darkness—but the media was never able to settle upon a single visual image to evoke the catastrophe. There also weren’t any bad guys to hate, which made everything that much harder to get into focus.
Depending upon your viewing habits, you could listen to experts debating the validity of conflicting religious and scientific explanations for what was either a miracle or a tragedy, or watch an endless series of gauzy montages celebrating the lives of departed celebrities—John Mellencamp and Jennifer Lopez, Shaq and Adam Sandler, Miss Texas and Greta Van Susteren, Vladimir Putin and the Pope. There were so many different levels of fame, and they all kept getting mixed together—the nerdy guy in the Verizon ads and the retired Supreme Court Justice, the Latin American tyrant and the quarterback who’d never fulfilled his potential, the witty political consultant and that chick who’d been dissed on
According to the Food Network, the small world of superstar chefs had been disproportionately hard hit.
Tom didn’t mind being home at first. It made sense, at a time like that, for people to stick close to their loved ones. There was an almost unbearable tension in the air, a mood of anxious waiting, though no one seemed to know whether they were waiting for a logical explanation or a second wave of disappearances. It was as if the whole world had paused to take a deep breath and steel itself for whatever was going to happen next.
* * *
As the weeks limped by, the sense of immediate crisis began to dissipate. People got restless hiding out in their houses, marinating in ominous speculation. Tom started heading out after dinner, joining a bunch of his high school friends at the Canteen, a dive bar in Stonewood Heights that wasn’t particularly diligent about ferreting out fake IDs. Every night was like a combination Homecoming Weekend and Irish wake, all sorts of unlikely people milling around, buying rounds and trading stories about absent friends and acquaintances. Three members of their graduating class were among the missing, not to mention Mr. Ed Hackney, their universally despised vice principal, and a janitor everybody called Marbles.
Nearly every time Tom set foot in the Canteen, a new piece got added to the mosaic of loss, usually in the form of some obscure person he hadn’t thought about for years: Dave Keegan’s Jamaican housekeeper, Yvonne; Mr. Boundy, a junior high substitute teacher whose bad breath was the stuff of legend; Giuseppe, the crazy Italian guy who used to own Mario’s Pizza Plus before the surly Albanian dude took over. One night in early December, Matt Testa sidled up while Tom was playing darts with Paul Erdmann.
“Hey,” he said, in that grim voice people used when discussing October 14th. “Remember Jon Verbecki?”
Tom tossed his dart a little harder than he’d meant to. It sailed high and wide, almost missing the board altogether.
“What about him?”
Testa shrugged in a way that made his reply unnecessary.
Paul stepped up to the tape mark on the floor. Squinting like a jeweler, he zipped his dart right into the middle of the board, just an inch or so above the bullseye and a little to the left.
“This was before your time,” Testa explained. “Verbecki moved away the summer after sixth grade. To New Hampshire.”
“I knew him all the way back in preschool,” Tom said. “We used to have playdates. I think we went to Six Flags once. He was a nice kid.”
Matt nodded respectfully. “His cousin knows my cousin. That’s how I found out.”
“Where was he?” Tom asked. This was the obligatory question. It seemed important, though it was hard to say why. No matter where the person was when it happened, the location always struck him as eerie and poignant.
“At the gym. On one of the ellipticals.”
“Shit.” Tom shook his head, imagining a suddenly empty exercise machine, the handles and pedals still moving as if of their own accord, Verbecki’s final statement. “It’s hard to picture him at the gym.”
“I know.” Testa frowned, as if something didn’t add up. “He was kind of a pussy, right?”
“Not really,” Tom said. “I think he was just a little sensitive or something. His mother used to have to cut the labels out of his clothes so they wouldn’t drive him crazy. I remember in preschool he used to take his shirt off all the time because he said it itched him too much. The teachers kept telling him it was inappropriate, but he didn’t care.”
“That’s right.” Testa grinned. It was all coming back to him. “I slept over his house once. He went to bed with all the lights on, and this one Beatles song playing over and over. ‘Paperback Writer’ or some shit.”
“‘Julia,’” Tom said. “That was his magic song.”
“His what?” Paul fired off his last dart. It landed with an emphatic
just below the bullseye.
“That’s what he called it,” Tom explained. “If ‘Julia’ wasn’t playing, he couldn’t go to sleep.”
“Whatever.” Testa didn’t appreciate the interruption. “He tried sleeping at my house a bunch of times, but it never worked. He’d roll out his sleeping bag, change into pj’s, brush his teeth, the whole nine yards. But then, just when we were about to go to bed, he’d lose it. His bottom lip would get all quivery and he’d be like,
Dude, don’t be mad, but I gotta call my mom.
Paul glanced over his shoulder as he extracted his darts from the board.
“Why’d they move?”
“Fuck if I know,” Testa said. “His dad probably got a new job or something. It was a long time ago. You know how it is—you swear you’re gonna keep in touch, and you do for a little while, and then you never see the guy again.” He turned to Tom. “You even remember what he looked like?”
“Kinda.” Tom closed his eyes, trying to picture Verbecki. “Sorta pudgy, blond hair with bangs. Really big teeth.”
Paul laughed. “Big teeth?”
“Beavery,” Tom explained. “He probably got braces right after he moved.”
Testa raised his beer bottle.
“Verbecki,” he said.
Tom and Paul clinked their bottles against his.
“Verbecki,” they repeated.
That was how they did it. You talked about the person, you drank a toast, and then you moved on. Enough people had disappeared that you couldn’t afford to get hung up on a single individual.
For some reason, though, Tom couldn’t get Jon Verbecki out of his mind. When he got home that night, he went up to the attic and looked through several boxes of old photographs, faded prints from the days before his parents owned a digital camera, back when they used to have to ship the film off to a mail-order lab for processing. His mother had been bugging him for years to get the pictures scanned, but he hadn’t gotten around to it.
Verbecki appeared in a number of photos. There he was at a school Activities Day, balancing an egg on a teaspoon. One Halloween, he was a lobster among superheroes and didn’t look too happy about it. He and Tom had been T-ball teammates; they sat beneath a tree, grinning with almost competitive intensity, wearing identical red hats and shirts that said
. He looked more or less as Tom remembered—blond and toothy, in any case, if not quite as pudgy.
One picture made a special impression. It was a close-up, taken at night, when they were six or seven years old. It must have been around the Fourth of July, because Verbecki had a lit sparkler in his hand, an overexposed cloud of fire that looked almost like cotton candy. It would have seemed festive, except that he was staring fearfully into the camera, like he didn’t think it was a very good idea, holding a sizzling metal wand so close to his face.
Tom wasn’t sure why he found the picture so intriguing, but he decided not to put it back in the box with the others. He brought it downstairs and spent a long time studying it before he fell asleep. It almost seemed like Verbecki was sending a secret message from the past, asking a question only Tom could answer.
* * *
right around this time that Tom received a letter from the university informing him that classes would resume on February 1st. Attendance, the letter stressed, would not be mandatory. Any student who wished to opt out of this “Special Spring Session” could do so without suffering any financial or academic penalty.
“Our goal,” the Chancellor explained, “is to continue operating on a scaled-down basis during this time of widespread uncertainty, to perform our vital missions of teaching and research without exerting undue pressure on those members of our community who are unprepared to return at the present moment.”
Tom wasn’t surprised by this announcement. Many of his friends had received similar notifications from their own schools in recent days. It was part of a nationwide effort to “Jump-Start America” that had been announced by the President a couple of weeks earlier. The economy had gone into a tailspin after October 14th, with the stock market plunging and consumer spending falling off a cliff. Worried experts were predicting “a chain reaction economic meltdown” if something wasn’t done to halt the downward spiral.
“It’s been nearly two months since we suffered a terrible and unexpected blow,” the President said in his prime-time address to the nation. “Our shock and grief, while enormous, can no longer be an excuse for pessimism or paralysis. We need to reopen our schools, return to our offices and factories and farms, and begin the process of reclaiming our lives. It won’t be easy and it won’t be quick, but we need to start now. Each and every one of us has a duty to stand up and do our part to get this country moving again.”
Tom wanted to do his part, but he honestly didn’t know if he was ready to go back to school. He asked his parents, but their opinions only mirrored the split in his own thinking. His mother thought he should stay home, maybe take some classes at community college, and then return to Syracuse in September, by which time everything would presumably be a lot clearer.
“We still don’t know what’s going on,” she told him. “I’d be a lot more comfortable if you were here with us.”
“I think you should go back,” his father said. “What’s the point of hanging around here doing nothing?”
“It’s not safe,” his mother insisted. “What if something happens?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just as safe there as it is here.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” she asked.
“Look,” his father said. “All I know is that if he stays here, he’s just gonna keep going out and getting drunk with his buddies every night.” He turned to Tom. “Am I wrong?”
Tom gave a shrug of nondenial. He knew he’d been drinking way too much and was beginning to wonder if he needed some kind of professional help. But there was no way to talk about his drinking without talking about Verbecki, and that was a subject he really didn’t feel like discussing with anyone.
“You think he’s gonna drink any less in college?” his mother asked. Tom found it both troubling and interesting to listen to his parents discuss him in the third person, as if he weren’t actually there.
“He’ll have to,” his father said. “He won’t be able to get drunk every night and keep up with his work.”
His mother started to say something, then decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. She looked at Tom, holding his gaze for a few seconds, making a silent plea for his support.
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m pretty confused.”
In the end, his decision was influenced less by his parents than his friends. One by one over the next few days, they told him that they would be heading back to their respective schools for second semester—Paul to FIU, Matt to Gettysburg, Jason to U. of Delaware. Without his buddies around, the idea of staying home lost a lot of its appeal.
His mother reacted stoically when he informed her of his decision. His father gave him a congratulatory slap on the shoulder.
“You’ll be fine,” he said.
The drive to Syracuse felt a lot longer in January than it had in September, and not just because of the intermittent snow squalls that blew across the highway in swirling gusts, turning the other vehicles into ghostly shadows. The mood in the car was oppressive. Tom couldn’t think of much to say, and his parents were barely speaking to each other. That was how it had been since he’d come home—his mother gloomy and withdrawn, brooding about Jen Sussman and the meaning of what had happened; his father impatient, grimly cheerful, a little too insistent that the worst was over and they needed to just get on with their lives. If nothing else, he thought, it would be a relief to get away from them.