Whenever my father disappeared, we looked for him on Hanover Street. My mother drove us slowly along in our orange Pinto, gazing into shadowy windows. Between the rows of smoky bars glowing with Schlitz and Budweiser signs were slim alleyways where he parked his fender-dented GMC. My mother's best friend, Marnie, sat in the passenger seat, and I squeezed in the back. Marnie's job was to keep an eye out for my father's truck, but she spent most of the time applying foundation, darkening her lashes, and glossing her thin lips in the visor mirror. Marnie had recently read somewhere that all men were intrigued by Southern women, so she adopted the appropriate lingo. Besides the occasional "y'all" and "yahoo," it meant a lot of nicknames. Peaches. Honey pie. Cupcake. At fifteen I considered myself practically a man, and the sound of all that food coming from her mouth did nothing but make me hungry.
Tonight Marnie was in the middle of plucking her eyebrows when she said, "Is that his truck, Peaches?"
"Where?" I said, sticking my head between them. I loved being part of Find-Father-First, and when she spotted his truck, it pissed me off, because I felt I had lost somehow.
"There," Marnie said, tapping her nail against the windshield. "There's the bastard."
I scanned the narrow parking lot. Datsun. Ford. Plymouth. Ford. GMC. My heart banged away, thinking of what usually came next. My mother hated bars and would almost always send me inside to nab my father. "A person could waste a whole life in one of those places," she liked to say.
For me there was nothing better than stepping inside the crowded brick caves--the smells of wet wood, stale beer, and smoke forever mingling in the air. I loved being surrounded by the cracking of pool balls, women with tight jeans and cigarette voices. They were so opposite from my mother with her smooth, young skin, flowery blouses and chinos, timid movements and soft hum of a voice. My mother had the air of a churchgoer, even though she never went to church. She was Sunday afternoon, and those women were Saturday night. Whenever my father saw me, he would pat his heavy hand on my shoulder and introduce me to all his pals. My father was like a movie star inside a bar, probably because he wasn't bald or potbellied or sloppy like the rest of the guys. He had straight teeth and a wave of dark hair, muscles and a flat stomach. He wore the same rugged denim jacket all year long and held his cigarette like a joint. While he paid his tab, I'd grab a fistful of straws so Leon Diesel and I could twist and snap them at the bus stop in the morning. Some nights I'd shove my sweatshirt pockets full of maraschino cherries and a couple green olives for Marnie. The neon fruit stained my hands and the inside of my pockets a strange artificial red that never completely came out in the wash.
The thought of the whole routine made me smile when my mother signaled and braked. We all squinted at the truck parked between Maloney's Pub and the Dew Drop Inn. Even in the summer, faded garland Christmas bells and angels dangled from the wires that hung between buildings and across Hanover Street. Every December the Holedo town maintenance crews put up new decorations, only to let the weather slowly take them down the rest of the year. Under the wiry remains of a golden bell sat the truck Marnie had spotted. Red and silver. Snow chains on the tires even though it was June. "No," my mother said in the softer-timbre voice she used for disappointment. "Roy's truck has that dent in the fender. And he took his chains off last March."
"Honey," Marnie said, "that man took his chains off long before that."
My mother glanced in the side-view mirror and pulled back onto the street, not laughing at the joke.
"Get it?" Marnie said. "Ball and chain."
Neither of us smiled. After all, none of this was funny. For the last two days my father had been on what we called a "big bender." It meant he left for work on Wednesday morning and hadn't been seen since.
I took the opportunity to dig at Marnie for picking out the wrong truck. "Those weren't even Massachusetts plates." My voice cracked a bit, which took away from the slight. I had the froggiest voice of any guy my age and was glad the magic of my long-awaited puberty was finally beginning to deepen it. Marnie looked at me and shrugged like she didn't care. But we both knew she had lost a point or two in the game.
She went back to her eyebrows, and I tried not to be distracted as she plucked. Hair after hair. Hair after hair. She was one of those women who had great faith in the transformative powers of makeup and jewelry. Marnie was so different from my mother, who kept her thick, soot-colored hair in a neat little headband. My mother had tattoo-green eyes and a smile that didn't call for lipstick or gloss. On her ring finger she wore a tiny silver band with a diamond, no bigger than a baby's pinkie nail.
We rolled to the end of Hanover Street, where the entrance ramp led to the highway out of Holedo. The bar lights blurred behind us, and my mother started checking and rechecking her watch, probably realizing how long we'd been searching. I stared out the window at a row of gray apartment complexes, an auto body shop with a half dozen mangled vehicles in the lot, the steady row of streetlamps that cast white light and shifting shadows inside our car as we moved...
Boy Still Missing
- paperback: 292 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial
- ISBN-10: 006000780X
- ISBN-13: 9780060007805