Read an Excerpt
Love Is a Missing Person
By M. E. Kerr
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1975 M. E. Kerr
All rights reserved.
IT IS A SATURDAY morning and I am writing this at the library.
This is the morning Chicago arrives; no one knows how she'll get here.
It is typical Chicago behavior. My father would charter a plane to bring her here from New York City. He would hire a limousine, a yacht. I think he would even drive her out from the city himself, in all the weekend traffic. But my sister goes out of her way to be independent.
If you have never heard the name Slade, you don't live within thirty miles of Seaville, Long Island, and you've never heard of Continental Office Machines—COM, as they list it on the Big Board.
The first (and last?) boy friend I ever had, two years ago when I was thirteen, once passed a note to me in homeroom. On the outside, for all to see, was my name, written $uzy $lade.
"It's not something to never see me again over," he complained when I caught up with him later at his locker. "I was only teasing."
"It's plenty to never see you again over," I said. "I have enough of a complex without you rubbing my nose in my grandfather's money!"
"I thought it was your father's," he said.
"My grandfather made it," I said. "My father's just adding to it."
"You should take it in your stride," he said.
"I intend to," I told him, "and I intend to stride right by you from now on."
But I have never been able to take it in my stride. I am not at all like Chicago.
I am not one of your snazzier Slades.
Your snazzier Slades don't even use words like "snazzy"—my mother calls them "tackyisms." I catch words and phrases like other people catch germs, and most of mine originate with Miss Gwendolyn Spring. She is a forty-eight-year-old, self-described nervous wreck, and my favorite friend and ally at the Seaville Free Library.
I am Suzy, the Slade daughter the father chose not to take to New York to live with him. My mother actually gave him his choice of girls.
My father's choice was Chicago. Naturally. She was his first-born, his image, his precious. Now, age seventeen, a junior in Abbotsford School, New York City, she is his favorite— blond-haired, blue-eyed, crazy, eccentric, beautiful, beloved.
She's like Daddy, too. She has some showoff in her, as he does. Her nickname resulted from the fact she'd memorized Carl Sandburg's poem about Chicago, one Christmas when she was just a tyke of five, and done a swaggering rendition of it: "Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat—" et cetera.
She also prizes individuality, as Daddy does. They are a good match.
I, too, have blond hair and blue eyes. I wear glasses for everything. ("Not for your love fantasies, I hope," says Miss Spring when I complain about being a four-eyes. I sneer: "What love fantasies!" I have them, though.)
I have the kind of disposition my parents claim their divorce is: an amicable one. I think they're right to make that claim. My mother's never been happier, and Chicago's reports on Daddy's life in New York are always raves. I suppose one reason for that is that they spend all their free time together.
When I see him, he seems the same old daddy, polite and holding back. Around Chicago he's a winker and a feigner of punches to her jaw, as though they are good old buddies with a little secret all their own. They touch a lot and laugh all the time.
When I was younger I used to believe that the little secret was that Daddy made believe she was a boy, because he wanted one so terribly. I was bad at sports; I was an introvert and moper. Chicago could box by the time she was six, and Daddy used to bring her home airplane model kits. They would make them together down in the Tack Room, which is what we Slades call our basement rec room.
According to Miss Spring, my disposition isn't as amicable as it is "as yet unformed," and "amicable divorces are always easier when there's a lot of money."
I used to play down the money thing as much as I could, when I first became a volunteer at the library. I also told Miss Spring what I considered to be the truth: "My life isn't that much easier than anyone else's."
"How would you know what anyone else's is like?" she answered. "You live in a cocoon, Mama-doodle!" She looked up at me with those wild eyes almost blurred out of existence behind whirls of glass like the bottoms of Coke bottles. Owl Eyes, some call her. She has frizzy yellow hair and stands a little over five foot three, and though almost all the librarians are into slacks at least a few days a week, Miss Spring's costumes here never vary. She wears a skirt and sweater and saddle shoes and white socks. She always smells of Tweed perfume, and sometimes under her sweaters she wears these round white collars, biblike affairs with no sleeves, called "dickeys," popular, my mother told me, "back in World War II when Gwendolyn Spring was not popular."
I'd ask, "Why wasn't she popular?"
"She wasn't with the girls, anyway," my mother'd say, and I wouldn't pursue the subject. Do you understand? I wouldn't let her get the knife in again for another twist.
Question, apropos of nothing in particular to do with this subject, or Chicago: Why is my mother, who is still beautiful, who married well, who divorced well, who smiles around all day complimenting the maids and the cook and the gardener on how well they're taking care of her—WHY is she determined to slander poor Gwendolyn Spring (who hasn't had a fourth of her luck in life) smack in the middle of a description about "dickeys"?
Anyway, back to Miss Spring's description of my life, inside a cocoon.
"I'm not that sheltered!" I argued back.
"Oh, honey," a new voice chimed in, "you don't know nothin' out there on Ocean Road. Out there on Ocean Road you in Dream City!"
That was Nan Richmond putting in her two cents, slipping into the black vernacular she gets into whenever we're all clowning around at the library. She gets into it when she's mad, too.
Nan is a chocolate-colored black, age sixteen, a junior at school. She lives in Inscape, a part of Seaville near the bay, where the artists' settlement is on one side, and the black settlement is on the other.
Nan is a page at the library, the first black page Seaville ever hired.
The day before she arrived, Mrs. Timberlake, head librarian, took me aside and in her best and most professional library whisper, said to me, "The colored like to be called black, dear, so try not to slip. We want her to feel right at home.... I don't know what was so bad about the word Negro."
I said, "I go to school with blacks, Mrs. Timberlake. Don't worry about it."
"Then you must help me to understand her," said Mrs. Timberlake.
"There's nothing special to understand," I said a little resentfully. "I'm not exactly going to school with cannibals or any other exotic species."
"Dear," she said, "we are taking on a black for the precise reason that we feel one will be a most worthwhile addition to our staff.... All I meant about your going to school with blacks is that Seaville High is almost 30 per cent black now. The same thing that happened in Oceanside could happen here."
All the adults worry that we'll turn into Oceanside. Its high school is 80 per cent black.
Nan says that's what we get for hauling all her ancestors up from down South for cheap labor generations ago. We should have left well enough alone, Nan says, and if we had wanted to keep our future schools lily-white, then our great-great-grandparents should have hired some white hands to scrub down the floors and haul trash, and cook and clean and break their backs pulling potatoes out of the ground.
Nan's got a mouth on her and she uses it often.
I was complaining once about having to work in the library for nothing, so I could get my allowance (a rule of my mother's, so I'll be out of her way afternoons).
"Oh, honey, honey, honey," Nan piped up, "I'd like to die imagining you without your allowance, child. No more tape decks, huh? No more of those funsy, secondhand World War II clothes from Outlet, hmmm? No more two-dollar hot fudge sundaes from Sweet Mouth, ah? Lord take pity on you, without your 'lowance, you gonna be reduced to poverty level."
My answer to her was to go light up one of her cigarettes back in the staff room, show the world how bright she is, sucking on poison every half hour. I told her she spent her money so much more wisely than I did, buying cancer for herself in little cellophane packages!
Mrs. Timberlake once said, "I can always tell when you and Nan aren't working, because Nan starts that Negro-style talk."
"Black-style," I said. "Remember?"
"I do admire Nan, though," Mrs. Timberlake always added, fearful she would be accused of a racial slur if she suggested Nan was goofing off. "She gives her all to us."
The fact is neither Nan nor I really give our all. Nan wants to be a songwriter, that's her impossible dream, and mine is to be a newspaper reporter who interviews all sorts of people. Nan works on her lyrics, and I read profiles and biographies, practice my writing, and add words to my vocabulary.
Right this minute as I look up from my journal, I am watching Nan, and listening to her talking with her boy friend.
His name is Roger Coe III. He's a black-black, not chocolate-colored like Nan, and he's got blue eyes, which is not too common. He's six foot, weighs 180 pounds, according to the football program, and he's a halfback, captain of the Seaville High Salts, who were last year undefeated.
Roger is also a track, baseball, and tennis star, and a pole-vaulter.
He is also a straight-A student.
Roger is another one who, if you haven't heard of him, you don't live within thirty miles of Seaville, Long Island, New York.
I think he could be a movie star.
Sample of their conversation, practically word for word:
NAN: So I'll see you tonight?
ROGER: Look deep at me, not away.
(This embarrasses Nan. She shakes her head and looks toward the ceiling. Roger doesn't smile or anything, just stares at her hard.)
NAN: Don't fool around Roger. You're not even supposed to be in this place this hour of day.
ROGER: This is a public place. Look deep, honey. See what you find in my eyes.
NAN: Oh, man. Oh, crazy, man. (She's more embarrassed.)
ROGER: Here now, see you smile.
Now he reaches to touch her face and she pushes his hand away and he puts it back. She pushes it away again and gives him a small shove. They keep this up, starting to laugh, acting crazy.
Miss Spring says sometimes being in love is a form of craziness. She says sometimes being in love elevates you to the realms of insanity.
I asked her once if she meant the kind of love Nan and Roger have.
"No," she said, "their love is sweet. It's tender. It's someday-we'll-probably-get-married love, and it's fun to watch.... But it's not exalting to watch."
"It's not what?" I said.
"It's not exalting to watch," she said.
That's what I thought she said, but I didn't know exactly what she meant.
I asked my mother and my mother said women like Gwendolyn Spring, who had to go around watching other people in love, would never know the meaning of the word exalting.
"When do you feel exalted?" I said.
"Sunday mornings when I sing in the choir," she answered. "That's one time. There are other times. They're personal."
"At least Gwendolyn Spring tells me things," I said.
"Who else has she got to talk to?" my mother said.
We don't enjoy the closest mother/daughter relationship in the world.
I was just interrupted.
"Mama-doodle," Miss Spring said, "your sister's outside waiting to talk to you. I'll take over the desk while you're gone."
"My sister's here?"
"On a motorcycle, Mama-doodle."
"Chicago doesn't own a motorcycle," I said.
"Quit stalling, quit writing in that notebook, quit acting like a zombie, and get out there," said Miss Spring. "She's your own sister."
Now that I know how she got here, I wonder why she came.CHAPTER 2
"WHERE DID YOU GET that thing?" I said, without saying Hello, Chicago, or How are you, Chicago? I folded my arms across my chest and stood there in front of the library, looking down at the ground and up at my sister out of the corner of my eye.
Chicago was sitting on the motorcycle, most of her face covered by goggles that were attached to a white crash helmet with C. Slade written across it in red ink.
"I just got in a few minutes ago," she said.
"Where did you get that?" I said.
"Dad bought it for me. It's a Harley 145."
She smiled at me and I looked away, embarrassed.
"Get on the back," she said.
"You crazy, Chicago?"
"I already asked Miss Saddle Shoes if you could take a coffee break."
"I don't drink coffee," I said, "and she doesn't have any authority over me."
"She said you could. I bet nothing ever happens Saturdays in there, anyway."
"Chicago," I said, wishing we weren't right there in full view on Main Street with her decked out like some guy from a motorcycle gang, "I'm afraid of motorcycles."
"You're afraid of too many things, Suzy. At least clear up your fear of motorcycles, and then you can begin to attack the rest."
"What?" I said. "I don't have any obsessive fear of motorcycles that's preventing me from having a normal life or anything like that. I don't want to get on the back of that thing."
She said, "You're absolutely right."
I said with astonishment, "I am?"
She unstrapped her crash helmet and pulled it off her head, along with the goggles.
She was still wearing her hair in almost a Marine boot's cut, and getting away with it, as some exotic Vogue model might. Chicago has a fantastic face. She has deep-blue eyes and a great wide white smile, and soft skin usually tanned from the sun, in any season.
"Here." She held out the helmet.
"I don't want it. Why?"
"Because you're going for a ride with me, somewhere for just a few minutes where we have total privacy."
I looked closely at her. She wasn't wearing one of her con-artist smiles or giving me the business in any way whatsoever. Chicago was serious. I can't remember ever having seen such a solemn expression on her face.
It frightened me somewhat.
I said, "If anyone died, I don't want to be told about it at the end of a motorcycle ride."
"No one died," she said, "but something is dead."
"Something that was alive once?"
"Very much alive," said Chicago. "A way of life."
"Has Daddy lost his money or something?"
"Suzy," Chicago said, "you're like some little kid who's afraid to step out of the house until she knows exactly what's going on, and if she'll be absolutely safe. My advice is to get your ass out the door and take your chances like everyone else. You're not five years old anymore!"
"Okay," I agreed, reaching out to take the helmet from her hand, "but why does it involve getting on the back of some machine that could slam into a truck?"
"I'll be the one to get killed or suffer the brain concussion," she said. "I'm letting you wear the helmet."
"You were always all heart, Chicago."
"I wouldn't suggest this if it wasn't absolutely necessary, Suzy."
"You'd suggest it if it wasn't absolutely necessary," I said. "You've always been dramatic."
"Was," said Chicago. "Past tense. Former life."
I fixed the helmet on my head and pulled down the goggles. Then I slung my leg over the back of the bike and mounted the rear seat. I just hoped Miss Spring was looking out the window, beginning to regret ever telling my sister I was free for a break. I half-hoped she'd see the imminent disaster and come running out, screaming that I couldn't leave the library grounds ... whether or not she had any authority over me.
The other half of me was really curious about what Chicago had on her mind.
I decided if Daddy had lost all his money, I'd get a summer job waitressing out at Tout Va Bien. I'd lie about my age. By fall I'd be sixteen, old enough to drop out of school and get a full-time job.
Chicago began to hit the starter pedal with her foot, trying to get the engine to kick over.
"What am I going to hang on to?" I shouted at her.
"Me," she answered.
I felt as doomed as someone with ESP New York-bound on the Titanic. Who in her right mind would hang on to Chicago for support?
Excerpted from Love Is a Missing Person by M. E. Kerr. Copyright © 1975 M. E. Kerr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.