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After my brother went missing, my parents let me use their car whenever I wanted, even though I only had a learner's permit. They didn't enforce my curfew. I didn't have to ask to be excused from the dinner table. The dinner table, in fact, had all but disappeared, covered with posters of Danny, a box of the yellow ribbons that our whole neighborhood had tied around trees and mailboxes and car antennas, and piles of the letters we'd gotten from people praying for Danny's safe return or who thought they saw him hitchhiking along a highway a couple states away. I didn't have to do any more chores.
Years later, I joined a support group for siblings of missing or exploited kids. It was amazing how a group of like-minded individuals could make the most singular and self-defining of circumstances feel simply mundane. I suppose for some, such a thing would be normalizing, since everyone in the circle of couches and folding chairs had experienced equivalent tragedy. For me, it was deeply disconcerting. I had no idea how to compete with other people's misery. It was in that group that I heard about the two types of parents: clingers and drifters. The clingers became micromanagers and wildly overprotective, tightening the reins, imposing new rules, smothering their kids with unwanted attention, buying gifts like a canopy bed or a new stereo system. The drifters, on the other hand, lost themselves to some mysterious netherworld, existing on coffee and crackers and minutes of sleep per night. They forgot to take the garbage out. They let the kitchen floor grow sticky. They looked like they were listening when you spoke (they became expert at empathetic nodding), but really they were staring just past you, glassy-eyed. The concerns of the corporeal world became inconsequential to them, except for the fine, red-hot point of finding their child (not you; their other child). Aside from that, they, well, drifted.
My parents were drifters.
We couldn't keep the refrigerator stocked; its contents dwindled to bread heels and condiments in a matter of days. My mom started smoking again, years after having quit. Her energy was both frenetic and focused: she designed posters, concocted overly elaborate phone trees to recruit people for the area sweep searches, and added to her steadily growing stack of index cards, each one scribbled with a "clue" to help the police. Allergic to penicillin, she scrawled on one. Capricorn, she wrote on another. Born on night of a full moon. My father became quietly obsessed with the TV news--local, national, international, as if he couldn't rule out any possibility. Maybe Danny was part of the throngs of Bosnian Serb refugees; maybe he'd been victim to the floods in the Philippines. Dad could go days without speaking. He could sit for hours (six and a quarter, I counted one day) in his sunken chair without once getting up. And we kept running out of toilet paper. Over and over again we had to use tissues instead, until those ran out too and we moved to paper towels, which quickly clogged the pipes. I'd never before had to think about the supply of toilet paper in our household. It had always simply been there. I was fifteen. Up to that point, I'd believed that the world more or less worked--toilet paper sat on its roll, dinner was served hot at the table, everyone came home at the end of a day--simply because it was supposed to and it always had.
"There's no proper or improper way to grieve," the woman who ran the support group would say. I did not return after that first visit; the impulse, it quickly became clear, had been a mistake. The woman's face was chalky with powder, her cheeks too bright with rouge, her eyelashes clumped with mascara. The collar of her blouse rose up around her neck, tied into an improbably flouncy bow. The look of her offended me. She was all wrong; how was I supposed to take her as an authority? Other participants hunkered down low in their chairs, weeping appropriately into soggy tissues. Or nodding appreciatively. Or wringing their hands. They had the raccoon-eyed, red-veined look of the haunted.
Finding myself backed into the overly familiar terrain of heartache and desperation brought out the worst in me. I was cornered, wanting to scream or kick my chair over or run my nails along the chalkboard where the woman had made us brainstorm a list of feeling words about our siblings (love, confusion, fear, sadness, the list began, predictably). I wanted to reel off my own list of shitty things Danny had done to me when we were teenagers (calling me the titless wonder, mashing my face in a pillow once until I couldn't breathe, ignoring me in front of his friends). I wanted to be irreverent and inappropriate. I wanted to shake up the righteous anguish. Going missing, I wanted to yell from some deep, dark pit in the middle of me, was the only interesting thing my brother had ever done.
In the first weeks after Danny's disappearance, I drove. I would spend long minutes in the garage before starting the car, adjusting the rearview and side mirrors, moving my dad's seat up and down and backward and forward until I had just the perfect view of the world behind me. I'd practice looking over my left shoulder to see past my blind spot, imagining that the bushy maple in our yard was a semi trying to barrel past me. Finally I'd back down our long driveway, my head out the window, the warm summer air making my cheeks feel blushed.
The whole act was fraught with a particular anxiety. Aside from being not strictly legal, I could never forget the smallness of me compared to the bigness of the car and the gaping margin for error created by the contrast. One wrong move and I could easily swerve into the oncoming lane or plow through a red light into a bustling intersection. The very act of driving--the successful negotiation of feet on pedals and hands on steering wheel and eyes in mirror--felt death-defying.
But I kept going back to it, night after night, and not just because it was a way to get out of the house and away from my parents and whichever well-meaning, wet-eyed neighbors or family friends were visiting. Even with the nervous thrum in my belly, driving managed to calm me down, focusing my attention on palatable, bite-sized fragments of data--two yellow lines, a green arrow, a bright red taillight. I had just finished the summer-school offering of driver's ed the month before and my stops were still jerky; I often overestimated how much gas I needed and regularly peeled out from stops; I scraped the curb on the few occasions I tried to parallel park. I was drawn to it in the same nagging way I was drawn to anything I wasn't yet good at, like when I'd spent the summer before eighth-grade algebra learning polynomial and quadratic equations, or when I'd spent weeks memorizing every strait in the world after losing the middle-school geography bee (Joshua Belson had beaten me, knowing that the Naruto Strait connected Awaji Island and Shikoku in Japan).
So each night, after my parents absently nodded in my direction and the raspy-voiced neighbor or family friend leaned in to hug me or place a sympathetic hand on my shoulder, I slipped out to the garage and into Dad's car. But I didn't have anyplace to go. I'd spent the bulk of my life up to that point either in school or in my room studying or in my best friend David Nelson's den paging through books and listening to music and generally lolling around. Most nights now, I'd deliver stacks of Missing Person posters to the ring of businesses surrounding our city. In the beginning, the sympathetic attention of strangers was still intoxicating.
The lady in the Kroger made an ohhh noise as she promised to hang it on the community bulletin board at the front of the store. The manager at the Blockbuster called me sweetheart and offered me a coupon: rent two, get one free. The kid who scooped ice cream at Baskin-Robbins said he'd take two because he worked another shift at the store in Belvedere. He looked, honestly, like he could cry. It was months--sixty-three days, actually--before anyone told me no. The guy behind the counter at the Texaco Mini-Mart just shook his head and said, "Sorry, ma'am." He couldn't post it in the window. Company policy.
"What company policy?" I asked, pointing to the poster for Once Upon a Mattress at Jefferson Middle School and one for the Red Cross: Give Blood. Save a Life. He repeated his line about manager approval in his thick, mumbling accent. His dark face was drawn, with wiry bits of hair growing in uneven patches across his chin. He was yellow around the eyes, which made him look sick.
His name tag said Kito. East Asian? African? Middle Eastern? I couldn't tell from his bland, bored features. It seemed like he could be anything. I assumed his bad attitude came from all the Franklin High jerkoffs who'd come in here before me, making What up, Apu? jokes or calling him Mohammed. But I was capable of talking to Kito like a normal person. I was capable of discussing the Oslo Accords or the Indian-Pakistani conflict over Kashmir, and not just because I could regurgitate facts from Mr. Hollingham's AP history class--which I could--but because I took a particular pride in actually reading newspapers and listening to the radio.
The fluorescent lights buzzed loudly above me. "Can't you take this now and get manager approval later?" I asked, sliding the poster across the rubbery mat on the counter. Danny was posed in his football uniform, down on one knee, a football socked in one armpit, his face broad and unobjectionable as a meatloaf, smiling as if Santa Claus himself had snapped the picture.
Beneath the photograph in bold, blocky letters it said, LAST SEEN 8/2/1995. There were other details scattered in a bunch of contrasting, discordant fonts and sizes and colors, because my mom, its designer, was a leaky container for panic. In italicized blue Courier, it listed what Danny had been wearing (Reebok gym shoes, shorts, gray T-shirt, Tigers ball cap); in huge red Times New Roman, how much my parents would reward someone for information leading to his whereabouts ($25,000; up another $10,000 from the last poster); in bolded Arial, where he was last seen (two miles from our house, leaving the basketball courts at the Larkgrove Elementary School playground, where he'd just finished a game with his musclehead friends, Tip and Kent). It didn't say musclehead on the poster, didn't even mention Tip and Kent.
Kito (Kite-o, I wondered, or Kee-toh?) told me no. No manager tonight, he said.
"Can't you hold it somewhere in the back until a manager arrives? Leave it on the manager's desk? Maybe put a note on it?" I was trying to stay reasonable, but I could hear my voice getting loud. A couple of guys had come into the Mini-Mart, one opening and closing the cooler doors, the other standing right behind me. I could smell the faint odor of gasoline coming off him, but I didn't turn around. "Please," I said.
Kito looked at me, yellow and expressionless. I was sure he had not the highest opinion of Americans, as most probably came in here for a six-pack of Bud or Marlboro menthols or a whole strip of lottery tickets with their Slurpee. Still, I wasn't used to strangers unmoved by tragedy.
"Listen," I said, speaking slowly and evenly. "I am not asking you to hang this poster immediately. I will leave it here to get whatever approval you need."
He called me ma'am again, even though he was old enough to be my father, and told me Sorry. "Sir, I can help you?" he said to the person behind me.
I curled my fingers around the rickety wire rack that held local maps, not quite sure what to do with myself. I wanted to tell Kito to go screw himself, but adults, even adults manning a gas station counter, still held relatively unassailable sway with me, so I chickened out and instead flicked my hand in his general direction, an insane motion, as if I were sprinkling fairy dust on him. For a second he opened his sick eyes a bit wider and I thought maybe I was starting to get through, but then, still, nothing. I left the poster on the counter, just to make a point, though I pictured Kito almost immediately throwing it into the metal wastebasket beside him, already overfilled with Snickers wrappers and Doritos bags.
The man behind me called over my head, "Pump eight." Kito started pressing the keys of his cash register. I opened the door hard on my way out, the bells on top clinking loudly and also, I hoped, angrily and indignantly and ultimately pityingly, for Kito and his sad little life there inside the Mini-Mart.
I dropped off posters at Wendy's, Arby's, Valu-Rite, and the Chevron. The car wash, the dry cleaners, and the Comerica branch were all already closed--it was nearly nine on a Tuesday. I scanned the radio for news. An AM host talked fuzzily about fallout from the O. J. Simpson verdict with a lady who yelled about how it was open season on battered women. On another station there was a story about riots in Lyons that broke out after the police killed a local bombing suspect. Bad news was soothing, as if at least it was the whole world that was screwed.
The lights of the A&W were still bright, the booths half full. Inside, there was a flash of purple-and-yellow letter jackets, which gave me a quick, instinctual stutter, a chill up the back of my neck. My new therapist, Chuck, would've told me the feeling was a grief response. Chuck thought everything was a grief response. And sure, you could have interpreted the jackets as a reminder of Danny, who likely would've been in there with the rest of them, eating burgers and slurping root beers and burping words. He'd be play-punching his friends on the arms, except his play punches would be hard, and soon two or three of the guys would end up in a dramatic little scuffle, Danny in a headlock, Tip or Kent with an arm around Danny's neck, tousling Danny's hair and saying, "What you want, pretty boy? You want to throw down?" and everyone would be laughing, even Danny, and maybe he'd spit burger out of his mouth or root beer would come flying through his nose. The whole crowd of them would make a huge racket, disturbing all the other A&W customers without even noticing or, if they noticed, without giving a crap.