Thanksgiving is a time of family and dysfunctional family. This week, Andrew Roe takes us into the life of a man who has put his mother in a home, but is as lost as she is. They’ve grown apart, from each other and from the people they wanted to become. When his mother escapes, Michael Ormsby goes on the hunt, and as he chases down his mother, he ends up rethinking what is best for her, and for himself. and what it means to be free. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
It was the director himself who called. His voice, serious and low, sounded trained for such occasions, the delivering of bad news to loved ones and relatives. And this was what he told me: my mother—68 years old, known for her marble sponge cake and Zen-like bridge skills, a rabid fan of movie musicals—was missing. Missing. Though he didn’t use that word. Euphemisms were employed instead. “Temporarily unaccounted for” was one, “currently unsupervised” another.
As strange and unbelievable as it sounded, she had apparently vanished from her room at Arcadian Acres. Went AWOL. “Disappeared,” as they say in certain Latin American countries, although that usually infers something political, and this wasn’t political. Or was it? I mean, what would cause an otherwise docile and resigned senior citizen to flee the security of an assisted living situation when all other feasible options had already been thoroughly examined and re-examined? I suppose it could be a number of things: a protest against society’s treatment of the elderly, the onset (finally) of Alzheimer’s, boredom, a whim, something she saw in a made-for-TV movie starring Angela Lansbury. Regardless, she ran away. Last seen in her robe, wearing slippers, sans her trusty wig.
“For now I’m classifying it a stage-four moderate,” the director explained to me.
I waited. The phone line clicked every five seconds or so. He wasn’t going to elaborate.
“Is that bad?” I asked. “A stage whatever?”
When the phone rang I had been in my bedroom. Late morning but still in bed. Lightnin’Hopkins, that patron saint of the lonely and bluesy, on the stereo. Contemplating the black hole of another Sunday. The window blinds closed, but I didn’t have to open them to know what the weather was like: gray gray gray. Whenever the sun appears it’s like a mirage, something that can’t be trusted to last.
“Could be better, could be worse,” he said.
I’d never actually met or spoken to the director before. According to A.A.’s brochure (featuring glossy shots of well-adjusted white-haired ladies giggling like school girls and an Olympic-sized swimming pool I’d yet to see), he had a Ph.D. in something called Advanced Modern Geriatrics. He also offered a 13-part series of motivational learning tapes and interactive CD-ROMs, which were available for a significant discount to the family members of clients. That’s what my mother was: a client.
“Middling,” he repeated. “If you’re after a succinct one-word description, I’d go with ‘middling.’”
I pressed him for more details (it was my mother after all, and fuck, she was missing), and he rattled off information and facts like an anchorman reading his lines. A staff person had entered her room (to wake her, help her get dressed and ensure she took her multiple meds, all of which was very routine, the director assured me) only to find an empty, unmade bed and the TV on. All standard procedures and follow-up were being performed. The director promised to keep me informed of the situation as it developed (again, like an anchorman). When I realized he was about to hang up and leave it at that, I started to stammer. Had the police been contacted? I asked. The director paused and let several seconds of purposeful silence pass, to remind both of us who had the Ph.D. and infomercial contract. At last he said he hoped to avoid jumping to any drastic conclusions and that things would no doubt be remedied in a timely and efficient manner. His exact words: “remedied in a timely and efficient manner.”
Clients, the director continued after another prolonged breath, often wander away, especially at night, especially after the holiday season, a time when depression soars. The next day they usually get picked up by the police or a concerned motorist, or they wander back out of fear and hunger and purposelessness. Why bother the authorities, who are busy enough already? I agreed that this was a good point. The director seemed pleased at my concession. Besides, he added, the home had had a recent spat of bad publicity: lawsuits, suspicious deaths, health violations, immigration raids, other disappearances.
“But surely you’ve read all about that in the paper,” he said.
“Yes,” I lied.
“Well then I’m sure you understand my situation.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Good. That’s settled then. I’m making a note to make a note of your cooperative attitude.”
“Thank you,” I said, stupidly. Why was I thanking him?
“Not to worry, Mr. Ormsby. People don’t just vanish into thin air. Here at A.A. the well-being of the client is our first and fundamental concern. We’ll get to the bottom of this, I assure you. We’re not the McDonald’s of assisted living facilities for nothing, you know.”
Before I realized it, I’d thanked him again. And after I hung up the phone it occurred to me that I’d forgotten to ask a very important question. Namely, when, exactly, had my mother disappeared? The director said that the people at the home usually turn up the next day. Did that mean my mother had disappeared last night? Or could it have happened days ago? There was no way to be sure. I tried to call back, but the line was busy. When I finally did get through, a half hour later, a woman’s prerecorded 900-number voice thanked me for calling Arcadian Acres, a division of the Fletcher Corporation, and said that my call was very important and to please hold for the next available service representative. Then Muzak. Then click. Disconnected.
My last visit was Christmas day, over two months ago. The staff had decorated the home with nothing but strands of shabby tinsel and a handful of skeletal poinsettias. Other guilty offspring lurked about, checking their watches and carrying packages. A group of teenagers from the nearby James Danforth Quayle School for Boys sang carols, bitterly. Most of my mother’s brethren appeared tired and skeptical, like they’d given up on the youthful facade of Yuletide cheer and peace on earth years ago. I didn’t stay long, just enough time to see my mother, give her a present, and down a glass of watery eggnog.
You could say our relationship is cordial, one of mutual disinterest and tolerance. It’s always been that way, even before she went to live in the home, before my father died suddenly, without drama or distinction, the summer I turned 12 and first discovered cannabis and Black Sabbath. I remember him as small, timid, ghostly, marginal; a morsel of a man who kept to himself (we all did) and voted Democrat and slurped his soup. Whenever I encountered him—in the garage, in the kitchen, out on the back porch that looks down into the valley and, on rare clear days, beyond—he always seemed a little surprised to see me, as if I was a foreign exchange student, not his son, and he could never immediately place my name or country of origin. If there was ever a time when he didn’t have his own room down in the basement, I couldn’t say.
After my father other men lived with us as well: Tom the auto parts salesman, Reg the real estate guy, Jack the investor, Ellis the retired cop. Each one, it seemed, brought more distance between my mother and I, yet another barrier that we instinctively steered ourselves around. They were always wanting to arm wrestle or play one-on-one in the driveway, calling me pussy or fag if I didn’t accept their manly challenges. At some point I went to college at Portland State, tried to grow a beard, flirted with Stoicism, developed severe asthma, dropped out with only a semester to go, came back home (it was Jack by then, I think), gained twenty-five pounds, and started working at the hospital. Cut to today. That was the vague chronology. There were periods when I drank too much and tried too hard to fall in love. But that was a long time ago.
Eventually the men stopped arriving and departing. It was just the two of us, more like fellow boarders than mother and son. We spoke less and less. I had a TV in my room; she watched in the living room or in her room. Then one night after Matlock she fell and broke her hip. She was getting older and more feeble and I was unremarkably approaching thirty. The illnesses escalated. Her bones were weak, lacked density. Cataracts, arthritis, low T-cell counts. Tests, procedures, operations. She heard voices. Her bladder faltered. My insurance was maxed out. There was the time she peed right there on the kitchen floor, crying. Something had to be done.
She didn’t resist the idea of the home. In fact, she accepted it with great dignity and grace. There were times, however, when it was difficult to tell if she truly knew what was happening. We’d been over everything numerous times, but when I loaded the car with her belongings and drove her to A.A. she was under the impression that we were visiting a friend.
“You mean I’m staying?” she asked as I unpacked her bags in the sparsely furnished room and then lined the shelves in her closet with a cheery floral-patterned paper. It smelled like cat piss in there, despite the no-pets rule.
“This is where you’re going to live now,” I said. “Remember? Remember we were here last week and we walked around and you said how much you liked the colors and that big giant painting in the dining room, the one of the ship out in the sea? And the nice ladies, the ladies playing Boggle in the dining room who said hi?”
She looked past me, as if trying to conjure one of those images in the distance—the painting, the Boggle-playing women—for clarity, for explanation of her current situation. But whatever she saw did not illuminate. She shook her head.
“This is where I’m going to live?”
“That’s right,” I confirmed.
“I don’t think I like it. I don’t think I like it at all.”
We stood there for a while. What else was there to do? She glanced around the room, intense, silent. Her eyes turned back to me, her son, her only child. She had lost a lot of weight by then, was extremely weak, and I thought that she might fall to a heap at any moment. I imagined that I would have to catch her and how utterly weightless she would be in my arms. Her eyes continued to search mine; they were like two green open wounds.
When I returned home that afternoon, I walked through the empty house as if for the first time, surveying every room like I was a prospective homeowner.
But my life did not significantly change, not like I thought it would. For more than two years she’s lived in the home and I’ve continued to live here. During that time my health has worsened while hers has actually improved. And now she’s missing.
As I shave, swab deodorant, loosen my belt another discouraging notch, I try to picture where she might be: running (if that’s even possible) across the highway, crouching by an extinguished campfire eating beans straight from the can. It’s ridiculous, I know. But that’s the movie trailer that plays in my head. She’s talking to people, transients like herself. They huddle to keep warm. They tell stories because that’s all they have now. One by one they speak. Then it’s my mom’s turn. She tells them her story. But all that doesn’t matter now, she informs the crowd. I’m going to make it. For the first time in my life I’m truly free.
And they believe every word. Old bald women in bathrobes eating beans by a fire—well, they just don’t lie.
Outside it’s starting to rain, that perennial pissy mist that never fails to dampen my heart even though you’d think I’d be used to it by now. I go downstairs and into the living room and try to collect my thoughts. But there’s distraction. The TV is on. And my roommate Tony is there because he’s always there. Where else would he be?
“What do you mean missing?” he asks between bites of Nutter Butter, after I fill him in on the morning’s revelations.
“Missing as in absence. As in the opposite of presence. The director says he’s on it. They’re on it. It’s a stage something.”
“Well, if it was me I’d call the cops, pronto,” advises a supremely confident, supremely stoned Tony. “Fuck those amateurs at On Golden Pond. Call the cops. That’s what I’d do,” he says, sprawled on the sofa that’s mine watching the TV that’s also mine. “But hey, I’m just a take-charge Dirty Harry kinda guy. A man’s got to know his limitations.”
Tony, who claims to be a successful seducer of the under-30 divorcees who frequent the two-for-one happy hour at The Skinny Dip over in Falling Brook. I’m a freelance graphic artist, he tells them, and it’s what he tells me. But ever since he’s been living here he’s never worked, not as far as I can tell, freelance or otherwise; he’s always at home, either camped out in front of the TV or reading my magazines or smoking my pot. But he’s reasonably quiet and clean and somehow pays his rent (I don’t ask). Compared to some of the other roommates I’ve had since my mother entered A.A., Tony qualifies as British royalty.
“Dirty Harry wouldn’t call the cops,” I say. “He’d go and take care of it himself.”
“That’s a good point,” Tony concedes. “I guess I didn’t think that one out too well. Nutter Butter?”
Instead of calling the police I decide to drive over to the home. After that I’ll take it from there. Who knows. She might already be back. She’s creeping up on 70, an old and frail woman who can’t stand it when the temperature dips below 80°. How long could she hold out?
As I’m gathering my keys and wallet and jacket, Tony glances up from the consuming radius of the screen. It’s either a game show or a talk show. People are laughing, applauding.
“I think we need some cereal,” he says. “And juice.” Then he adds, “If you happen to be going by a store, I mean.”
The drive is pretty much a straight shot, 15, 20 minutes tops, taking me from one side of the valley to the other. In between there’s nothing but forgotten neighborhoods, occasional gas stations, the penitentiary-looking junior high school, a strip mall or two, vacant lots, dirt, mud. Along the way I try to ignore the gray funk massing steadily in the sky. Old Testament clouds are waiting ahead of me; the rain picks up. I click on my windshield wipers, wondering if my mother has been able to find cover, perhaps a barn or hunter’s shack. She was never one to rely on the comfort of strangers.
Whenever it rains long enough and hard enough, our inadequate town ofRayburnfloods. Water rushes down from both sides of the valley, wreaking havoc on our homes and streets, reminding us of our vulnerabilities. Over the years various attempts have been made to stem the flow of the rain, but no matter what we do—improvised dams, rain gutters, more culverts, Native American healing rituals—the water seems to win. You’re always hearing about a child or beloved family pet being washed away by an overflowing Jessup Creek. Little League season invariably gets scrapped, the Hound Dog Bar and Grill holds its annual flood party where beers are half-off and the jukebox is free. It’s just something we put up with. Weather. What can you do?
I pass through Rayburn’s equivalent of a downtown, a three-block cluster of economic woe. Most of the businesses have folded. Everyone goes elsewhere to shop, to see a movie, to eat out. Lately there’s been talk of renovating the downtown area, luring in some chain stores. Our mayor, Steve, has even used the term “renaissance” and commissioned the community college’s part-time art instructor to draw up the proposal. But we’re all pretty skeptical. We’ve seen too much already. Too much hasn’t happened for too long.
By the time I make it to the home the rain is pouring like hell, verging on the biblical. I sprint from the parking lot into the main building, getting drenched in the process. No one is around, the front desk unoccupied, so I shake off some more water and head down the hallway toward the dining area and first-floor rooms. A.A. always freaks me out. I feel like a traveler, crossing one country’s border and entering another. Language, customs, currency—everything changes. Plus I usually get lost. It’s like a large maze, full of fun-house turns and stairways leading nowhere. Take a left instead of a right and you’ll spend the next 15 minutes finding your way back. Stop paying attention to where you’re going and next thing you know you’re in a room full of senior citizens singing “The Hokey-Pokey,” or suddenly you come upon a hallway lined with people in wheelchairs and walkers and you won’t want to turn tail because they’ve already spotted you and it would be a huge snub, and so you keep walking, and as you do so they reach out to touch you and say something like “I don’t belong here. There’s been a terrible mistake.”
Still walking and still I don’t see anyone. Muzak drifts in through overhead speakers, barely audible but enough to annoy. I hear the clanking of cutlery and dishes, some ambient moaning. It’s hard to believe that people live here, day to day. But before I get much farther a hand descends on my shoulder.
Turning, I behold a Sasquatch of a man. He’s dressed in a yellow windbreaker, the kind security guards wear at rock concerts. His hair is buzzed and the hint of a goatee circles his un-amused mouth. He’s big. Insanely big. That’s about all I can register.
“I’m Michael Ormsby,” I say. “My mother lives here. Muriel Ormsby. I was told she’s missing.”
“Missing?” the man repeats, his meaty paw of a hand still vise-gripped on my shoulder. “Jesus, not another one. What’s with these damn fucking old people?”
I’m escorted back to the entry area. Now there’s a woman at the front desk, hunched over a computer keyboard like a mad scientist, tapping furiously. Rows and rows of bricks fill the expanse of the screen. Tetris.
“I’m listening,” she says without moving her eyes from the monitor.
“We got another runner,” reports the windbreaker man.
The windbreaker man turns to me.
“Ormsby,” I say. “Muriel Ormsby. The director called me this morning.”
“There’s no reason to shout, sir,” snaps the Tetris woman. “Violence and intimidation will get you nowhere in this facility.”
I hadn’t shouted at all. Hadn’t been violent. Hadn’t intimidated. I was beginning to regret the half-assed research I did about this place. It was nearby. It was convenient. It was cheap. Well, cheaper.
“I’m just trying to find out what’s going on with my mother,” I say. “That’s all. She’s a client here.”
“Just a—shit.” And she thwacks the keyboard in disgust. “Stupid addictive game,” she tells the screen. “So your mother has gone missing. Ormsby. I think I saw a memo earlier today. Or was it yesterday? Yeah. Ormsby. Actually I think there’s a posse getting ready to head out pretty soon. You probably can still catch them.”
“Just a couple of local fellas who do a little freelance work for us when it comes to client searches. They’re real good about it. They get sensitivity training and everything.”
“And the director. Could I see him first?”
She laughs. “I don’t think so. I suggest talking to Carl and Dale. They’re the posse guys. Malcolm here, he can show you the way.”
Malcolm extends a Schwartzenegger forearm to show me the way. I’m about to thank the Tetris woman, but this time I catch myself. How could I have put my mother in a place like this? Where is she? How far has she gone by now? Has she hitched? Jumped a train? Twisted an ankle? Fallen and can’t get up? It’s several miles into town. After that there’s nothing but forest and mountains and the army base; after that, eventually, thePacific Ocean. I’m starting to hope that she makes it to wherever it is she thinks she’s going, that she stays disappeared.
With the exception of my three and a half years of college, I’ve lived in Rayburn all my life. Why? It’s a good question. Prospects here—economic, spiritual, you name it—are few and far between. The town itself isn’t small enough to be intimate and charming, but neither is it big enough to offer any cosmopolitan amenities. Most of the women close to my age are either pregnant, recovering from childbirth, or taking home pregnancy tests. And the rain—we’re always wet, drizzled on, sun-deprived. But after a certain point in life, you just get used to a place, how it’s laid out, how it looks, how it feels. It’s what you know. It’s where you live. You’ve made your choice even though it doesn’t really feel like one, and there’s no specific moment you made that decision, it just happened, and now there are too many miles and too many years between you and that moment that never happened.
We find Carl and Dale in the parking lot, warming up their pickup truck and drinking Burger King coffee. They wear camouflage fatigues, green rain ponchos, baseball caps that advertise the manufacturers of large farm equipment. You could mistake them for twins except that one sports a prodigious beard and one does not. Both are burly, thick, men of one-syllable pleasures. Malcolm approaches the truck and tells them who I am.
“Want to tag along, chief?” one of them says. “We’re heading out to Timmins Ranch. We got a report of a confused elderly white female roaming the area. Would that there description fit your mother?”
“Well, hop in then, captain.”
I scrunch into the back portion of the truck, totally soaked. Introductions are made. Carl is the driver. Dale, the one who’s been speaking and has the beard, shakes my hand, crushes it actually. It’s then, while waiting for the circulation to return to my white-collar fingers, that I notice the rifles.
“So, Mike. What is it you do in the real world?” Dale asks.
I hesitate. I feel like my answer is being recorded, will be scrutinized, judged. I regret—and not for the first time—my particular career path. “I’m a payroll clerk over at Jackson General.”
Dale purses his mouth some, as if considering whether or not this fits his criteria for a respectable profession.
“Carl’s been there.”
Carl nods as he pulls onto the main highway. His hands on the steering wheel look raw, capable of sudden violence. Three guns. Rifles. With those scope things you look through. One two three.
“Damn near killed himself a few years back,” Dale continues. “Done got caught under a mudslide. But Carl made it out. Survived. His dog didn’t, though.”
“That was a damn fine specimens of dog,” says Carl. “Only wished I’d breeded him.”
We drive in silence for a while, until they resume a conversation they’d been having earlier. Carl mentions that his wife’s sister’s roommate is pregnant. Again. There’s some question about the identity and race of the father. All the while I keep trying to come up with various ways to casually inquire about the guns. Finally, Dale realizes what’s making me so uneasy.
“What, those things? Don’t worry none. There’s no real bullets. These are just tranquilizers. Like what vets and nature people use and stuff. It’ll knock you out. But it won’t kill you, not hardly.”
“So you shoot them? You actually shoot the people you’re looking for?”
“Like I said, tranquilizer. They get hit, they go to sleep, they wake up back at A.A., good as new.”
“And you do this regularly?”
“Say again there, Mike.”
“Work for the home. Track down people who’ve left.”
“It’s—what you call it? A fluctuating market, like anything else. Carl and I, we have a couple of different business ventures in the works. Diversify. That’s our motto. Today’s entrepreneur can’t limit himself to just one deal. Think different, think out of the box, synergy and all that. But the work’s been pretty steady as of late. We were just talking yesterday about how we need another person. An apprentice like. You interested in switching careers, Mike? Left, Carl, left.”
The truck veers off the highway onto an unpaved road. There’s a barn to our left, crops of some kind on our right. Everything is green and wet. “We’ll just wait and see how you do,” says Dale. “How’s that sound? A little on-the-job training.”
Carl brings the truck to a stop in a clearing and cuts the engine. Hanging from the rearview mirror is a pair of handcuffs. Empty cigarette packs and crumpled fast-food bags litter the dashboard. I can see their breath inside the cab, steady gusts escaping then disappearing. Dale hands me a rifle.
“Lock and load,” he says.
It’s Sunday. Day of rest. Day of atonement. Day of football and naps and The Simpsons. Tomorrow I’ll be back at work, at my desk, poorly postured as I type numbers into a computer. Then I’ll come home and Tony will be there, eyes aglaze with TV and weed, nursing a Zima and quoting lines from The Big Lebowski, regaling me with factoids about James Polk’s sexual appetites and recent outbreaks of whooping cough, providing a blow-by-blow account of the bidding battle for an obscure toy or game from his childhood that he found on eBay. But for now I’m following Dale and Carl, the rain thrumming down, and we’re hunting my mother.
They move quickly—faster than you’d think, based on their bodies and ample bellies—and I have a tough time keeping up. Visibility is pretty minimal because of the rain, but Dale and Carl forge ahead, as if they know exactly where they’re going, men of the wild, suckled by wolves. We enter a heavily forested patch where hardly any rain falls. Pine soaks the air, along with the damp of leaves and earth. I chase after their green shapes as best I can. The asthma: it snakes around my lungs then squeezes like a motherfucker. “Through here,” Dale yells, motioning for me to hurry.
At the top of a small ridge Carl scans the area below with his high-tech-looking binoculars. “This is where we found one of them last week,” he says, handing the binoculars to Dale. “They usually follow the highway then turn up that road we took. Once they get past the farm there ain’t much elsewhere they can go, see, just straight into this big meadow which is where we’re going. Like shooting ducks in a bathtub. The only trouble is, is when some of the more stubborn ones wander over onto the army base, what with all the exercises and maneuvers and such they’re always doing. We’ve had a few ugly situations there. You say this is your mother?”
“I don’t know. It could be her. All I know is she’s been reported missing.”
“There’s been a lot of that lately,” Dale says. “That’s where Carl here comes in handy. He’s kind of psychic on these matters.”
Carl produces a sock from inside his poncho. He holds it up for my inspection. “This your mother’s sock?” It’s a white sock gone gray, washed too many times. I can’t identify it as my mother’s. It’s a sock.
“Carl takes an object of the person who’s missing—say a sock, a shirt, a purse, a used wad of Kleenex—and he can sense where the person is,” Dale explains. “You probably seen this kind of stuff on Dateline or 20/20. Carl here’s got a gift.”
“And I’ve got a real bead on this sock,” says Carl, sounding almost wistful. “I’m thinking that way.” He points north. Or is it south? The rain lets up momentarily. Dale shakes his head, says, “It won’t hold. The rain’s gonna get worse before it gets better. Let’s keep amoving.” They take off down a narrow trail, graceful as elk in a PBS documentary, and soon I’m once again huffing like a repentant smoker.
The Tetris woman had said freelance. So did Carl and Dale get paid on a per-person basis? And whose policy was this? The director’s? Shooting residents, hunting them like animals? Certainly this wasn’t legal. Certainly I could complain to the proper authorities. I began to compose police blotter sketches of Dale and Carl as well as Malcolm and the Tetris woman. Arrests were no doubt imminent. Until then, however, I’d have to remain calm, act cordial, let things play out.
“Mike. Over here.”
My rifle grows heavier. Have I ever fired a gun? No, I have not. I slog through some more foliage, through more mud and muck, and emerge into another clearing. Sure, there is a slight elation, the euphoria of the predator. But I keep having to remind myself: this is my mother, the woman who gave birth to me, not a deer or quail. Mud covers my shoes and most of my pants. My jacket is now just an extra layer of wet. I squint ahead and see Carl pointing like a Civil War general. Down below us, moving at a labored pace, as if blind, is a woman, obviously old, obviously confused. “I knew that sock was powerful,” Carl says.
Dale clasps his comrade’s shoulder. “Bingo. There’s our runner. That her?” he asks me.
At first I can’t be certain. The woman is too far away. But slowly she comes into focus and I’m pretty sure it’s my mother. It’s been years since I’ve seen her without a wig, but yes, it’s her. I recognize the hobbled body, the osteoporosis lurch, the powder-blue terry cloth robe I’d given her years ago.
“Carl, I believe this one’s yours,” says Dale.
Carl smiles like a villain in a James Bond movie, drawing the rifle up to his eye. I expect him to suddenly speak with an unidentifiable accent.
“Just a second and I’ll have a pretty clear shot. Come on. Come on you bitch. Keep moving.”
“Hey,” says Dale. “That’s his mother you’re talking about.”
“Sorry there, skipper,” Carl apologizes. “Nothing personal.”
The woman, my mother, is the most fragile creature I’ve ever seen. From up here, she’s so alone, so small, not at all the person I grew up with. She’s just a sad, lonely, old woman who shouldn’t be out in the rain and lost and scared and making a run for it. I see my failure.
Carl continues to peer through the scope thing, anticipating. Dale pulls out a cigarette and smokes in the rain.
And I don’t know precisely why or how, but just in time I’m possessed by some kind of recessive heroic gene finally come to life and my arms start moving and then I’m running and charging like a blitzing linebacker and I grab the snout of Carl’s gun as he’s pulling the trigger and the shot falls short, way short. There’s immediate wrestling, pounding, I’m on the ground, knees in my chest, boot heels in my stomach. I taste bark, blood. Carl and Dale roll me over and pin my arms behind my back. Breathing isn’t an option. I’m completely covered in mud and ooze, practically primordial. “What the shit, boy?” They drag me to my feet. Standing requires all my remaining energy. “Hold him.” Carl grabs my throat, weighing the possibilities.
Amazing: one action, one desperate and foolish move—and this is what happens. Things change. Or could change. The outcome possibly altered. So sudden. That simple.
“You’re one big fucking inconvenience, Mr. Payroll Clerk,” says Dale.
But I have no illusions, not even in my fuzzy state. I know it’s only temporary, that sooner or later they’ll bring my mother back to A.A. and that she’ll resume her life of solitude and I’d return to my equally ascetic existence. But even if it got her only a few minutes more, then it was worth it. To have that much more freedom. It’s the only gift I can give her. Maybe she’s somewhere else in her mind and this will allow her to stay there a little longer. Maybe she’s reliving her childhood at this very moment, remembering what it was like to be a girl with no idea of what lay ahead, no conception of towns like Rayburn and nursing homes and disappointing husbands and distant sons. I wish I could warn her of the tranquilizer about to put an end to her doomed journey, but it’s impossible to speak with those fingers locked around my throat.