It happened the weekend you drove south to help your son find a refuge for the next semester in the big city, i.e., a one-bedroom apartment within walking distance of campus with its own shower, kitchen and living room. He wanted an apartment without roommates, for the sake of the solitude he needed, his version of peace that passeth all understanding. The day you left, however, heavy snows and high winds closed down the route you usually took. This forced you to take a long detour, one that first went east, then south, and finally west; a large u-turn that did not completely evade the storm.
The minvan’s heater fogged the windows, and its intense warmth was stifling. Yet whenever you turned the heat off, you felt the cold seep through the floorboards and the thin soles of your shoes to benumb your toes. For long stretches of time, you were alone on the road fighting the storm, but you refused to turn on the radio. Instead, you decided to create a story in your head at that point in the highway where you turned south off the Thruway onto I-81. Just to test yourself, just for fun. You started with the first sentence that came to mind, “The men have vanished.”
* * *
The men have vanished. They left last night by bus, by car, by train. They left by booking flights on the new discount airlines and the old ones in bankruptcy. Not one of them said a word. Strong and silent, most just walked out the door without any explanation.
They gave us no hints; no lipstick smears on shirt collars, no maxed-out credit cards from losses incurred at local casinos. In the days leading up to their sudden departure, each of them kissed our lips or necks or foreheads in the same way they’d always done before; with the same rough passions or the same bored expressions with which we had become accustomed. They left the toilet seats up as always. They grudgingly took out the garbage. They watched television in silence, drinking their cans of beer with one hand firmly grasped around the remote control. In short, they behaved as they had always behaved right up until the moment they departed.
* * *
The squall found you seventy miles north of Binghamton. The snow, packed down by all the tires passing over it, made the road treacherous. Too cold for rock salt to be effective, not that you saw any salt trucks out on the road, for the storm had come on too quickly. The wind tossed flurries of large white flakes at you like a child shaking a snow globe, twirling and twisting them about as if gravity didn’t exist. Soon, white-out conditions left only the right lane of I-81 South visible. The friction created by hundreds tires and hot gases emitted by hundreds of exhaust pipes had exposed two thin tracks. Those grey-smeared lines of asphalt delineated a path you could drive on without the rear of the van fish-tailing all over the place.
You pulled in line behind a long-haul trailer, creeping along at speeds no higher than 35 miles per hour. Occasionally, four-wheel drive SUVs and pickup trucks over in the left lane roared past, their wheels churning up great clumps of ice and snow that splattered the minivan’s windshield, burdening its poor beleaguered wipers with the heavy detritus of their arrogance. Unwilling to wait, disdainful of the slow slog of those who hugged the right side of the road, they sped past at high speeds, reckless and impatient.
Some of them you’d see again later, their vehicles having spun out and slid off the road into ditches. Others smashed their powerful beauties into guardrails that saved them from slipping over the edge and crashing down dangerous and precipitous slopes. Seeing this, you practiced that most difficult of virtues—patience. When the worst of the blizzard started to lighten, and the winds no longer slammed into the side of your van, you picked up your story again.
* * *
Not one of us noticed, of course. We were all busy making dinner or chasing after our children or shopping at the mall or dashing home from work or school. Most of us noticed their absence for the first time when we tried to call their cell phones and got a pre-recorded message informing us that the number we had just called was “… out of order or has been disconnected and is no longer in service …” Some women kept calling all night long, but I stopped after the third attempt. Further calls seemed futile.
In the evening, the male actors were absent from your favorite TV shows: CSI and Bones and NCIS (even the reruns). The History Channel had programs about Queen Elizabeth and Cleopatra and Mary Magdalene but nothing about Alexander the Great or Ronald Reagan or their all-time favorite, Adolph Hitler. TNT ran a James Bond marathon, but the films now bored you .The Bond girls were the only characters in every scene – Pussy Galore indeed. Without the requisite man candy of Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan or Daniel Craig to gaze upon, people lost interest.
The morning after, the news anchors and reporters were exclusively females, their high-heels replaced by flats. They wore less make-up, too, as if they knew they no longer needed it. Not one of them said a word about the missing men, not even the investigative reporters. The weather girls (why do we call them girls when they’re pushing thirty?) appeared distracted as they discussed the lingering effects of cold fronts.
No one wore black, but by the end of the week, we recognized we effectively had become widows or worse: abandoned lovers and ex-wives, new converts to cult of abstinence. Sales of sex toys rose so rapidly that many adult entertainment stores exhausted their inventories within a fortnight. By the end of the first month of their departure, Amazon announced that all its dildos and vibrators were back-ordered indefinitely. Shocker, that.
* * *
The snow stopped just before you crossed the border between New York and Pennsylvania and headed toward Scranton. You exited at the first rest stop that presented itself to you; a shiny, well-maintained ‘Welcome Center.’ You slunk into the ‘Family Rest Room’ so you could relieve yourself in privacy. There were few people there when you came out.
At the vending machines, you slid your two $1 bills into the greedy little slot that accepted paper money and purchased a 20-oz. Pepsi in a plastic bottle because no Cokes were available. You received a quarter back, bright and newly minted, which rattled and clinked until it finally came to rest in the change drawer. George Washington’s regal profile with its aquiline nose and sternly-closed lips still dominated one side, but the reverse side depicted a grizzly bear in a stream behind a small waterfall with a salmon in its jaws, and one large paw reaching menacingly toward you.
It was one of the last of such coins issued under the 50 State Quarters Program. Above the Grizzly was imprinted “Alaska” and beneath that the date of its admission to the Union: 1959. To the right of the bear was Alaska’s State Motto: “The Great Land.” The year shown at the bottom of the coin was 2008. You picked it up and absently looked it over when a small boy, six or seven perhaps, came by to purchase candy from one of the other machines. When he was finished with his task, impulsively you offered the quarter to him.
“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” he said, but his eyes gave away his desire for the coin.
“It’s only a quarter,” you said. “See, here on the back? There’s a picture of a Grizzly bear.”
“A Grizzly? Let me see.” You handed it over and he inspected it closely. “Can I really have it?”
He offered you some of his candy, but you declined. “Go back to your parents now. They’re probably waiting. Go on.”
He ran away then, leaving you alone. Over at the counter by the information desk you asked for a road map of Pennsylvania because your phone had no signal, but the woman sitting there said they were out. She apologized, but you said it wasn’t a big deal. Outside, you walked briskly back to your car as a chill wind froze the tips of your ears and slipped its cold fingers right through your heavy fleece jacket. Only after you climbed into your car and turned the key, feeling the warmth of the heater’s fan, did you screw the cap off the Pepsi, take a drink and think again of your story.
* * *
Everyone refused, at first, to discuss this calamity whether in person, by phone or via email. Twitter and Face Book posts made no mention of the absence of men in our lives. No one spoke to her mother to ask if Dad was still puttering around in the garden or out playing golf. No one wanted to know their dads were gone with all the rest; and no mother dared to wonder aloud about the absence of her daughter’s husband or boyfriend.
Where the State Troopers might be holed up playing endless rounds of poker, or to which Caribbean resort the underwear models had departed, was not a topic for discussion. One day, a female news anchor reported that anonymous sources claimed they saw the President at his ranch riding his bicycle; but, when questioned about the alleged sighting, a White House spokeswoman refused to respond to a “mere hypothetical.” A conspiracy of silence enveloped us all.
All the dance clubs and bars (except for those that catered to lesbians) shut down, their strobe lights unlit, their dance floors draped in shabby solitude. We all drank at home, alone, after the kids were asleep, or if childless, maybe with a few close friends. Some of the younger crowd held “dance parties,” but the fad quickly faded.
* * *
You rolled past the outskirts of Scranton and onto I-80 West. Your story frustrated you. You couldn’t think of an ending, and you were tired. Hungry from not eating anything all day, you kept drinking coffee, Pepsi and one 5-Hour Energy drink that left a bitter metallic taste on the back of your tongue. It was late afternoon now, and you didn’t have the energy for making up stories in your head. Besides, the view was enchanting. The landscape outside your minivan cocoon, a series of tall, tree-laden hills, slowly dimmed as you chased the sunset for an hour, driving due west into that bright yellow eye, which turned the tops of bare trees bronze. You saw halos when your eyes fixed upon the dusk-filtered sky.
But too soon, the fractal grace of the trees’ branches that flanked both sides of the road disturbed you. The trees that blanketed the hills from the highest heights down to the highway, gave the illusion that their branches hung directly overhead. Like the Wizard of Oz forest, they reached ever closer, an intimidating sight as the sun drifted lower and they grew darker. Their indistinct, tangled black branches hungered for your soul, or so you imagined. Yet when glancing to the side, you saw spaces between each bark-roughened trunk where traces of white snow appeared on bare ground. It was almost invisible, that snow.
Having lost the thread of your story, you turned on the radio eighty miles east of State College searching for music. However, all you heard was white noise, trapped as you were in a valley between parallel ridges of whatever part of the Appalachians you traversed. The only station broadcasting a strong enough signal was a religious channel on the FM dial. An evangelical preacher on W-something-something-something was describing grace as a supernatural power that gives relief from suffering and pain. Relief, he claimed, that will not be granted until after you submit to Christ, the Christ who hung bleeding on the cross, enduring his pain for your sake.
He was the great sacrifice for all of the sins you carried, both the menial and venal ones you had committed. Only through him could those sins be wiped away and you become purified in the sight of the Lord, your father. But to receive that gift first you must believe in the power of Jesus Christ’s grace. The preacher-man (for he was a man) spoke of how only faith in the Lord Jesus would answer all your needs; how it would instantly bring you blessings and shower your life with rewards. If only, you thought, if only that were true…
* * *
The preacher still admonished you, but his words began to bleed one into the other until they were practically unintelligible. For no apparent reason, your thoughts strayed to Tom and Edie Stall, the happy couple at the beginning of David Cronenberg’s film A History of Violence. They both wore silver crosses around their necks throughout the film. They both believed in the life they had fashioned together, in their family, in the power of their love, in the small-town heaven they created for themselves.
They embraced the divine mystery that emanated from within their mundane lives. His diner, her small-town law practice, the intimacy of knowing everyone and everyone knowing you, of still making love to each other after 16 years of marriage. Yet that cross could not change the past that Tom tried to erase, a past of crime and murder and violence that is uncovered by his one act of heroism in the film.
In the opening scene of the movie, over the opening credits two men at a run-down motel prepare to leave, a classic killer duo on a crime spree who already murdered the motel’s proprietors, a husband and wife. You learn this about them when the younger man walks into the office to fill a plastic container with water and the camera pans to the dead bodies: one slumped over the desk and one on the floor.
A quivering, whimpering five-year-old girl, with two long pig-tails that frame her traumatized face, surprises the younger man as he is filling his bottle with water. She holds her dolly in her arms in front of her as a shield. The younger murderer puts a finger to his lips and gently shushes her as he reaches for the revolver stuffed in the back of his pants, hidden under his shirt, before pulling it out and aiming at her head. The gun fires and the scene ends with a fade to black.
Later that night, the two killers enter Tom Stall’s diner late at night just as he is about to close. Their intentions soon become apparent. Tom offers to give them all the money in his till, but they want more. The older man orders the younger to rape Tom’s waitress while he holds a gun on Tom. Miraculously Tom manages to save them by splashing hot coffee on him, taking his gun away and shooting the other who crashed through the window door as he falls down dead. Tom then shoots the older man in the face after he stabs Tom in the foot. The intense violence is over in an instant. Tom, a quiet family man, saved his workers, two customers (a girl and boy at a table prolonging their date with a post-movie milkshake) and himself.
Yet Tom’s act of bloody salvation exposes a past he believed dead and buried. His former self, Joey Cusack, was a thug, an Irish mobster who, after tearing out the eye of his nemesis, Carl Fogarty, with barbed wire in a bar fight, fled Philadelphia to save his life. Years later, he was reborn as “Tom Stall.” Under this new identity, he met and fell in love with Edie and married her. Together they have two children, a farmhouse, his diner, a family.
How did he create his new life out of the bloody stains of his past? What strange grace fell down upon him as he ran away from all he’d once been? Did he burn away all traces of evil Joey’s soul and replace it with the good one named Tom? What mysterious transformation converted him into a man of peace, soft spoken, eyes still astonished by the beauty of his wife and the happiness his daughter and his first-born son brought him? Did Jesus speak to him from the clouds as he spoke to Saul did on the road to Damascus? The movie does not tell us.
Tom’s moment of heroism changes everything. The publicity from his exploit in the diner exposes his face to the world; and Carl Fogarty, seeking vengeance, comes to Tom and Edie’s small town to settle accounts with “Joey.” Fogarty even stalks Edie at the mall. He taunts her about “Joey,” this other man she knows nothing about, tormenting her with the reality about her husband she does not want to accept. Yet Fogarty refuses to let her off the hook:
“Ask him how come he’s so good at killing people?” He tells Edie this in their last conversation. A few scenes later, in a confrontation at the Stall’s home Fogarty pushes Tom to the breaking point. When Fogarty dies, we finally witness the return of Joey, for Tom cannot save his family without him.
Why did God permit such violence back into Tom’s life? Why did he allow Joey to come out of hiding from whatever black pit imprisoned him? Was God testing Tom, like Job, as part of a bet with Satan? Or was Tom being punished for Joey’s past sins? Did all the good Tom had done since transforming himself into a good family man, one who built a new life over twenty years as a faithful husband and loving father, who killed and buried the bad boy Joey, count for nothing?
No, this was the God of the Old Testament wanting his pound of flesh. Tom’s son becomes a killer too, shooting Fogarty in the back before Fogarty can shoot “Joey,” thus visiting the sins of the father onto the son. Tom, his marriage in ruins, his son lost to him, knows he must return to Philadelphia after he receives a late night call from his older brother, the man who would be king of the Philly underworld. His brother remains a threat to all the people Tom loves. So Tom Stall must become Joey Cusack once more and relive the story of Cain and Abel, and with it a stain no Savior can ever wash away. For him, there is no redemption, not even from Baby Jesus on Christmas Day.
As you drove that night, you wanted to ask the preacher about Tom’s fate; but the radio would not allow you, a member of the preacher’s unseen audience, a speaking part. Besides, Tom Stall was merely a fictional character written for a film directed by a perverse atheist filmmaker starring Hollywood actors. “It’s all a lie,” the preacher would have said about Croenenberg’s movie. “Even the crosses they wore around their necks were a devilish trick— props to tempt the faithful.”
* * *
The preacher also reminded you of someone else, this time not a character in a Hollywood movie, but one of your neighbors. A good Christian believer, faithful, a man devoted to his family. He also wears a cross around his neck. You’ve seen it, touched it and held it in the palm of your hand. Hearing the preacher harangue you, alone in your car surrounded by a dark forest and a dark night on a dark road, you recalled the sorrows your unlikely friend has endured, the anguish he’s buried.
You remember your many conversations with him, but the painful ones more than the good. How his oldest son, hospitalized for psychiatric problems as a teenager, died under unknown and unexplained circumstance from a “heart condition” after joining the Marines. How his youngest daughter, emotionally disturbed and possibly bipolar, fell under the spell of a sadomasochistic sexual predator, appeared in amateur porn videos, and became a stripper at the local shithole “titty” bar when she came of legal age, shattering his soul into shards of broken glass. How one day he lost his white collar job and was forced to became a manual laborer again at the age of fifty. How his first wife developed incurable cancer after their son died and their daughter spiraled into sin. How she came to hate her husband with such fury she left him, left her other daughter and son, left her church, divorced him, and blamed him for everything wrong with her life, for all the horrific things that had been visited upon the two of them.
You recall his bitter tone of voice when he spoke about her to you in his kitchen even as she was dying. You recall the despair in his voice and the hopelessness on his face when he told you about his prodigal daughter. You saw both the good and the bad in him, the kind words for you and your family and their problems, the appreciation for the poor words you offered to console him, to be the best friend you could to someone so unlike you. You remember sitting in his kitchen as he listened to your own tales of woe, offered his words of sympathy, before, much like the radio preacher, he asked you to accept his version of God, promising that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ would save your life and would bless your family with riches.
With all sincerity, he told you that faith in Jesus as your personal savior would not only save your soul but, through the power of prayer, bring rewards and blessings into your life and the lives of those you loved. The same promise the preacher on the radio offered as you listened to him speak, another member of his audience, just before he asked for donations to continue his radio ministry. Then you remember staring into your friend’s eyes, knowing he believed what he told you to be true, despite all that had befallen him. Despite the despair in his voice, the bitter seed that grew in his heart.
* * *
You turned off the radio, no longer interested in the preacher’s message. You drove on in silence, the rough wind whistling past the van as it headed west, prolonging the last glimmer of the sunset at 75 miles per hour, watching until the last rusted lavender indigo blur of it slipped into a starry night.
So much beauty is in this world. The sunset had accompanied you on your journey for well over an hour. You watched the narrow road ahead while the sun dissolved into the horizon, slowly evolving into a form of quietude, as if the very hills that hid its form and scattered its light were a giant sleeping animal, and their trees its newly washed fur. Soon enough the road was filled again with new companions, more semi-trailers and container trucks plowing in an endless stream inside the right lane of the road they owned even as you dashed past them on their the left, imagining the lives of the people behind the wheels of those leviathans.
Had they listened to the radio preacher? Did they have a personal relationship with Jesus? Had they received blessings and rewards because he answered their prayers? Or were they strung out on meth, fueled by talk radio or country music or classic rock and roll or the bizarre perversity of Howard Stern on Satellite radio? Were they just helpless little ants scurrying through their busy, but monotonous days waiting for the gods to step on them and crush their bodies back into dust?
Your eyes darted back and forth, fearful of the power of the trucks should they veer into your lane, fearful of the state police should they catch you speeding, fearful for your daughter sick at home without you. Tired and alone, you struggled to erase these miserable thoughts.
Through the windshield the first star appeared, bright on the horizon. Was it Venus perhaps, another ancient God who promised love, though different and more fleeting? Then, in that moment, all the racing electrical currents creating the anxiety in your brain stopped, for, as more stars appeared, it came to you—the end of your story.
* * *
Boys under the age of thirteen were spared the Exodus (as the adult women have taken to calling it). They huddle together in school cafeterias and on playgrounds, just as they did before; but a certain look is in their eyes that you can see on occasion when they think no woman is watching them, one of confusion and anxiety that not even their tough-guy bravado can mask. They fill the monkey bars with tangled limbs and vacant stares. Out of fear, we don’t ask them what they know about their fathers, or if they know anything, and they don’t ask us about what we know, either.
Only the young girls spoke of the unspeakable. Every night my daughter insists on asking you where her father went and when was he going to return? I tell her that Daddy will call her as soon as he can, and not to worry, but her face lets me know I’m a big fat liar. Often, after singing her a lullaby and putting her to bed, I hear her crying like a kitten, little mewling sounds that gradually diminish until fatigue conquers her.
Last night, I took my five year-old son to the ’big’ bedroom. I’ve been doing that more and more lately, just to have the scent of him nearby. I held him snuggled against me, his warm little-boy smell and soft hair a poor substitute for the touch of his father, my husband, but all the more precious for that. I held him, his head buried in my armpit, until the sound of his breathing was regular, until his eyes fluttered back and forth beneath closed eyelids.
That’s when I whispered to him. “Timothy, Mommy still loves you and needs her big boy to stay home with her. And Mommy will do whatever she has to do to keep her boy with her forever.”
Eyes still closed, he smiled, mumbled something indistinct, his syllables soft as overripe pears, before he rolled away and pulled the blankets to one side exposing half his tiny body to the chill air. His dog (Brown Dog he calls it, a stuffed animal he’s had since he was two) was still nestled in his arms; they lay together nose to nose. I took the extra grey fleece blanket from the bottom of the bed, tossed it in the air and let it float over him for an instant before it descended.
Unable to sleep, I turned on the TV at 11:09 p.m., to watch the pregnant meteorologist dressed in maternity clothes say that tomorrow will be spectacular with lots of sunshine, warmer than usual temperatures and positively no chance of rain showers. In the morning, when I awoke, she was right. The sun shone upon my face. Immediately I looked to make sure my son had not vanished. He lay there still, his little chest rising and falling, filling the room with his breathing. For that small gift, I offered up a prayer.