My sweater was new, stinging red and ugly. It was May 12 but the temperature had dipped to the forties, and after four days shivering in my shirtsleeves, I grabbed cover at a tag sale rather than dig through my boxed-up winter clothes. Spring in Chicago.
In my gunny-covered cubicle I sat staring at the computer screen. My story for the day was a limp sort of evil. Four kids, ages two through six, were found locked in a room on the South Side with a couple of tuna sandwiches and a quart of milk. They'd been left three days, flurrying like chickens over the food and feces on the carpet. Their mother had wandered off for a suck on the pipe and just forgotten. Sometimes that's what happens. No cigarette burns, no bone snaps. Just an irretrievable slipping. I'd seen the mother after the arrest: twenty-two-year-old Tammy Davis, blonde and fat, with pink rouge on her cheeks in two perfect circles the size of shot glasses. I could imagine her sitting on a shambled-down sofa, her lips on that metal, a sharp burst of smoke. Then all was fast floating, her kids way behind, as she shot back to junior high, when the boys still cared and she was the prettiest, a glossy-lipped thirteen-year-old who mouthed cinnamon sticks before she kissed.
A belly. A smell. Cigarettes and old coffee. My editor, esteemed, weary Frank Curry, rocking back in his cracked Hush Puppies. His teeth soaked in brown tobacco saliva.
"Where are you on the story, kiddo?" There was a silver tack on my desk, point up. He pushed it lightly under a yellow thumbnail.
"Near done." I had two inches of copy. I needed six.
"Good. Fuck her, file it, and come to my office."
"I can come now."
"Fuck her, file it, then come to my office."
"Fine. Ten minutes." I wanted my thumbtack back.
He started out of my cubicle. His tie swayed down near his crotch.
Frank Curry thinks I'm a soft touch. Might be because I'm a woman. Might be because I'm a soft touch.
Curry's office is on the third floor. I'm sure he gets panicky-pissed every time he looks out the window and sees the trunk of a tree. Good editors don't see bark; they see leaves--if they can even make out trees from up on the twentieth, thirtieth floor. But for the Daily Post, fourth-largest paper in Chicago, relegated to the suburbs, there's room to sprawl. Three floors will do, spreading relentlessly outward, like a spill, unnoticed among the carpet retailers and lamp shops. A corporate developer produced our township over three well-organized years--1961-64--then named it after his daughter, who'd suffered a serious equestrian accident a month before the job was finished. Aurora Springs, he ordered, pausing for a photo by a brand-new city sign. Then he took his family and left. The daughter, now in her fifties and fine except for an occasional tingling in her arms, lives in Arizona and returns every few years to take a photo by her namesake sign, just like Pop.
I wrote the story on her last visit. Curry hated it, hates most slice-of-life pieces. He got smashed off old Chambord while he read it, left my copy smelling like raspberries. Curry gets drunk fairly quietly, but often. It's not the reason, though, that he has such a cozy view of the ground. That's just yawing bad luck.
I walked in and shut the door to his office, which isn't how I'd ever imagined my editor's office would look. I craved big oak panels, a window pane in the door--marked Chief--so the cub reporters could watch us rage over First Amendment rights. Curry's office is bland and institutional, like the rest of the building. You could debate journalism or get a Pap smear. No one cared.
"Tell me about Wind Gap." Curry held the tip of a ballpoint pen at his grizzled chin. I could picture the tiny prick of blue it would leave among the stubble.
"It's at the very bottom of Missouri, in the boot heel. Spitting distance from Tennessee and Arkansas," I said, hustling for my facts. Curry loved to drill reporters on any topics he deemed pertinent--the number of murders in Chicago last year, the demographics for Cook County, or, for some reason, the story of my hometown, a topic I preferred to avoid. "It's been around since before the Civil War," I continued. "It's near the Mississippi, so it was a port city at one point. Now its biggest business is hog butchering. About two thousand people live there. Old money and trash."
"Which are you?"
"I'm trash. From old money." I smiled. He frowned.
"And what the hell is going on?"
I sat silent, cataloguing various disasters that might have befallen Wind Gap. It's one of those crummy towns prone to misery: A bus collision or a twister. An explosion at the silo or a toddler down a well. I was also sulking a bit. I'd hoped--as I always do when Curry calls me into his office--that he was going to compliment me on a recent piece, promote me to a better beat, hell, slide over a slip of paper with a 1 percent raise scrawled on it--but I was unprepared to chat about current events in Wind Gap.
"Your mom's still there, right, Preaker?"
"Mom. Stepdad." A half sister born when I was in college, her existence so unreal to me I often forgot her name. Amma. And then Marian, always long-gone Marian.
"Well dammit, you ever talk to them?" Not since Christmas: a chilly, polite call after administering three bourbons. I'd worried my mother could smell it through the phone lines.
"Jesus Christ, Preaker, read the wires sometime. I guess there was a murder last August? Little girl strangled?"
I nodded like I knew. I was lying. My mother was the only person in Wind Gap with whom I had even a limited connection, and she'd said nothing. Curious.
"Now another one's missing. Sounds like it might be a serial to me. Drive down there and get me the story. Go quick. Be there tomorrow morning."
No way. "We got horror stories here, Curry."
"Yeah, and we also got three competing papers with twice the staff and cash." He ran a hand through his hair, which fell into frazzled spikes. "I'm sick of getting slammed out of news. This is our chance to break something. Big."
Curry believes with just the right story, we'd become the overnight paper of choice in Chicago, gain national credibility. Last year another paper, not us, sent a writer to his hometown somewhere in Texas after a group of teens drowned in the spring floods. He wrote an elegiac but well-reported piece on the nature of water and regret, covered everything from the boys' basketball team, which lost its three best players, to the local funeral home, which was desperately unskilled in cleaning up drowned corpses. The story won a Pulitzer.
I still didn't want to go. So much so, apparently, that I'd wrapped my hands around the arms of my chair, as if Curry might try to pry me out. He sat and stared at me a few beats with his watery hazel eyes. He cleared his throat, looked at his photo of his wife, and smiled like he was a doctor about to break bad news. Curry loved to bark--it fit his old-school image of an editor--but he was also one of the most decent people I knew.
"Look, kiddo, if you can't do this, you can't do it. But I think it might be good for you. Flush some stuff out. Get you back on your feet. It's a damn good story--we need it. You need it."
Curry had always backed me. He thought I'd be his best reporter, said I had a surprising mind. In my two years on the job I'd consistently fallen short of expectations. Sometimes strikingly. Now I could feel him across the desk, urging me to give him a little faith. I nodded in what I hoped was a confident fashion.
"I'll go pack." My hands left sweatprints on the chair.
I had no pets to worry about, no plants to leave with a neighbor. Into a duffel bag, I tucked away enough clothes to last me five days, my own reassurance I'd be out of Wind Gap before week's end. As I took a final glance around my place, it revealed itself to me in a rush. The apartment looked like a college kid's: cheap, transitory, and mostly uninspired. I promised myself I'd invest in a decent sofa when I returned as a reward for the stunning story I was sure to dig up.
On the table by the door sat a photo of a preteen me holding Marian at about age seven. We're both laughing. She has her eyes wide open in surprise, I have mine scrunched shut. I'm squeezing her into me, her short skinny legs dangling over my knees. I can't remember the occasion or what we were laughing about. Over the years it's become a pleasant mystery. I think I like not knowing.
I take baths. Not showers. I can't handle the spray, it gets my skin buzzing, like someone's turned on a switch. So I wadded a flimsy motel towel over the grate in the shower floor, aimed the nozzle at the wall, and sat in the three inches of water that pooled in the stall. Someone else's pubic hair floated by.
I got out. No second towel, so I ran to my bed and blotted myself with the cheap spongy blanket. Then I drank warm bourbon and cursed the ice machine.
Wind Gap is about eleven hours south of Chicago. Curry had graciously allowed me a budget for one night's motel stay and breakfast in the morning, if I ate at a gas station. But once I got in town, I was staying at my mother's. That he decided for me. I already knew the reaction I'd get when I showed up at her door. A quick, shocked flustering, her hand to her hair, a mismatched hug that would leave me aimed slightly to one side. Talk of the messy house, which wouldn't be. A query about length of stay packaged in niceties.
"How long do we get to have you for, sweetness?" she'd say. Which meant: "When do you leave?"
It's the politeness that I find most upsetting.
I knew I should prepare my notes, jot down questions. Instead I drank more bourbon, then popped some aspirin, turned off the light. Lulled by the wet purr of the air conditioner and the electric plinking of some video game next door, I fell asleep. I was only thirty miles outside my hometown, but I needed one last night away.
In the morning I inhaled an old jelly doughnut and headed south, the temperature shooting up, the lush forest imposing on both sides. This part of Missouri isn't quite mountainous, but the hills are massive, like giant rolling swells. Hitting a summit, I could see miles of fat, hardy trees broken only by the thin strip of highway I was on.
You can't spot Wind Gap from a distance; its tallest building is only three stories. But after twenty minutes of driving, I knew it was coming: First a gas station popped up. A group of scraggly teenage boys sat out front, barechested and bored. Near an old pickup, a diapered toddler threw fistfuls of gravel in the air as his mother filled up the tank. Her hair was dyed gold, but her brown roots reached almost to her ears. She yelled something to the boys I couldn't make out as I passed. Soon after, the forest began to thin. I passed a scribble of a strip mall with tanning beds, a gun shop, a drapery store. Then came a lonely cul-de-sac of old houses, meant to be part of a development that never happened. And finally, town proper.
For no good reason, I held my breath as I passed the sign welcoming me to Wind Gap, the way kids do when they drive by cemeteries. It had been eight years since I'd been back, but the scenery was visceral. Head down that road, and I'd find the home of my grade-school piano teacher, a former nun whose breath smelled of eggs. That path led to a tiny park where I smoked my first cigarette on a sweaty summer day. Take that boulevard, and I'd be on my way to Woodberry, and the hospital.
I decided to head directly to the police station. It squatted at one end of Main Street, which is, true to its word, Wind Gap's main street. On Main Street you will find a beauty parlor and a hardware store, a five-and-dime called Five-and-Dime, and a library twelve shelves deep. You'll find a clothing store called Candy's Casuals, in which you may buy jumpers, turtlenecks, and sweaters that have ducks and schoolhouses on them. Most nice women in Wind Gap are teachers or mothers or work at places like Candy's Casuals. In a few years you may find a Starbucks, which will bring the town what it yearns for: prepackaged, preapproved mainstream hipness. For now, though, there's just a greasy spoon, which is run by a family whose name I can't remember.
Main Street was empty. No cars, no people. A dog loped down the sidewalk, with no owner calling after it. All the lampposts were papered with yellow ribbons and grainy photocopies of a little girl. I parked and peeled off one of the notices, taped crookedly to a stop sign at a child's height. The sign was homemade, "Missing," written at the top in bold letters that may have been filled in by Magic Marker. The photo showed a dark-eyed girl with a feral grin and too much hair for her head. The kind of girl who'd be described by teachers as a "handful." I liked her.
Natalie Jane Keene
Missing since 5/12
Last seen at Jacob J. Asher Park, wearing
blue-jean shorts, red striped T-shirt
I hoped I'd walk into the police station and be informed that Natalie Jane was already found. No harm done. Seems she'd gotten lost or twisted an ankle in the woods or ran away and then thought better of it. I would get in my car and drive back to Chicago and speak to no one.
Turns out the streets were deserted because half the town was out searching the forest to the north. The station's receptionist told me I could wait--Chief Bill Vickery would be returning for lunch soon. The waiting room had the false homey feel of a dentist's office; I sat in an orange endchair and flipped through a Redbook.